Restrictions on power to impose planning conditions

Neighbourhood Planning Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:00 am ar 25 Hydref 2016.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Amendment moved (this day): 19, in clause 7, page 6, line 18, at end insert—

“including in terms of sustainable development and public interest.”—(Dr Blackman-Woods.)

This amendment would ensure that there is a sustainable development test in conditions and that they are acceptable to local people.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing) 2:00, 25 Hydref 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. The Minister will be relieved to know that I was not quite in the middle but towards the end of moving amendment 19. I was extolling the virtues of adding to clause 7 a provision that would ensure that the Secretary of State had to take account of the need to promote development that is both sustainable and in the public interest.

To recap, I went through the provisions in the national planning policy framework and in planning guidance relating to sustainable development. Of course, we are also asked to look at the key provisions of the Climate Change Act 2008, which I will only do in a cursory way. Those provisions rely heavily on reducing carbon and on further adaptation measures that help with addressing climate change issues. I am sure the Minister is very familiar with the provisions of that Act and the need to ensure that, where possible, all development addresses those provisions and therefore helps us to combat climate change.

That deals with the first part of the amendment, which is about sustainable development. The amendment also asks that the Secretary of State have some consideration of the public interest, which is much more difficult to deal with than sustainable development, in terms of having a straightforward definition of exactly what we are talking about. For sustainable development we have the NPPF, the guidance and the Climate Change Act. The definition of “public interest” is much harder to agree on.

“Public interest” is a term with a long history. It says something about transforming the interests of many people into some notion of a common good. I am sure that we all think that is a central task of the whole political process. Thomas Aquinas maintained the common good to be the end of government and law, which is interesting—we might want to ponder that for a moment or two, as a bit of light relief. We also know that John Locke put

“peace, safety, and public good of the people” as the ends of the political system. That is quite a nice thing for us to reflect on as well. One says that the public interest is central to our task this afternoon, and the other says that it should be nothing to do with us at all. I use that only to show that there is probably no absolute and complete understanding of what public interest is.

Rousseau, as always, has come up with something that helps us. He took the common good to be the object of the general will and purpose of government. That might help the Secretary of State in this regard, because it says clearly that the common good should be an outcome of legislation and of what we are all doing in this room. I therefore take it as read that there will be no problem putting those words on the face of the Bill.

Of course, it is not quite that straightforward. In practice, the public interest is often subject to differing views. People can decide that a public or common good can be met in a variety of ways. It is therefore not always exactly clear in practice what is meant by the public interest, but we are happy to leave it to the Secretary of State to come forward with a clear definition, if he so wishes.

Standard dictionaries manage to come up with a generally held view of the public interest as

“the welfare or well-being of the general public” and of

“appeal or relevance to the general populace”.

That Random House dictionary definition is incredibly helpful, because that is what we would want planning developments to be. We would want them to promote the welfare or wellbeing of the general public, and we would want them to have an appeal to, and be considered relevant to, the general populace. We would like that sort of consideration, particularly the relevance of a development’s appeal to the local population, to be quite high up on the Secretary of State’s list of issues and interests when determining which conditions he will or will not allow.

We have had a wide-ranging look at the amendment, so I really look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Gavin Barwell Gavin Barwell Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Housing, Planning and London)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe.

I thank the hon. Member for City of Durham for tabling amendment 19, which brings us back to less divisive territory and raises the important issue of having to take planning decisions both in the public interest and with the aim of achieving sustainable development. As she explained, it would add to the list of constraints on the Secretary of State’s regulation-making power in proposed section 100ZA(2) by explicitly requiring the Secretary of State to take account of sustainable development and the public interest when deciding whether it is appropriate to prohibit certain classes of planning conditions. Although the matters that the hon. Lady has raised are of the greatest importance in the planning system, I shall argue that the amendment is not necessary, in much the same way as amendment 16 was not necessary.

Subsection (2)(a) and (b) of proposed section 100ZA already provide assurance that the Secretary of State will be able to prohibit conditions only in so far as it is necessary to ensure that conditions will

“make the development acceptable in planning terms” and are

“relevant to…planning considerations generally”.

That includes the need to consider the presumption in favour of sustainable development, which is at the heart of planning policy, plan making and decision taking. Local views are also already central to the planning system.

I thought that the hon. Lady made my point for me quite powerfully by quoting voluminously from the NPPF. Nevertheless, I shall briefly pick out a couple of other quotes. The then Secretary of State’s forward to the NPPF starts with the words:

“The purpose of planning is to help achieve sustainable development.”

Further on in the document, at paragraph 14, it states:

“At the heart of the National Planning Policy Framework is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, which should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan-making and decision-taking.”

I do not think that anybody who has spent even a moment reading the document could doubt the extent to which it is based on the principle of sustainable development.

I assure Members that clause 7 will in no shape or form restrict the ability of local planning authorities to seek to impose planning conditions that are necessary to achieving sustainable development, in line with national policy. The proposals will not change the way that conditions can be used to maintain existing protections for important matters such as heritage, the natural environment and measures to mitigate flood risk.

On taking account of the public interest—I greatly enjoyed the quotes that the hon. Lady read out—and ensuring that planning decisions and conditions are acceptable to local people, the Government continue to ensure that the planning system is built on the principle of community involvement. The system gives communities statutory rights to become involved in the preparation of the local plan for their area, bring forward proposals for neighbourhood plans, make representations on individual planning applications and make comments on planning appeals should applicants object to decisions made by local planning authorities. Account is also taken of the views of local people if an application comes to my desk, as happens infrequently.

I have no problem with the language in the hon. Lady’s amendment; the principles of public interest and sustainable development sit at the heart of the planning system. I simply say that it is not necessary to add that language to subsection (2)(d), because that language goes much wider than that one subsection; it runs right through the NPPF, which is referred to elsewhere.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said. We are probably all just a little disappointed that we are not going to hear the outcome of the Secretary of State’s deliberations on what exactly is meant by the public interest and that that will not be put in the Bill. The purpose of the amendment was really to elicit from the Minister how important he felt upholding the principle of sustainable development was, and to get that read into the record.

The national planning policy framework document is widely accepted as a very good piece of work, but that does not mean that it will always be there. In the future there may be a significantly amended NPPF in which sustainable development is not so obvious. I quoted from it today to show that it is there at the moment. We want to ensure that decisions made under the provisions in the Bill are made with sustainable development and the public interest in mind. Given the Minister’s reassurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

I beg to move amendment 17, in clause 7, page 6, line 20, at end insert—

“(1A) Regulations made under subsection (1) must make provision for an appeal process.”

This amendment would ensure that provision is made for an appeals process.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 20, in clause 7, page 6, line 24, at end insert—

“where agreement cannot be reached a mediation system should be prescribed.”

This amendment would allow for there to be a mechanism to resolve disputes.

Amendment 21, in clause 7, page 6, line 26, at end insert—

“(5A) The Secretary of State should provide guidance for appeal routes where an agreement cannot be reached on pre-commencement conditions, along with guidance on pre-completion and pre-occupation conditions.”

This amendment would ensure that there is clarity on appeal routes, pre-completion and pre-occupation conditions.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

The amendments in this group deal with the need that may arise from clause 7 for appeal systems or mediation arrangements. The Minister did not like our amendment 15, which sought to provide a series of exceptions whereby local authorities may not have to follow the conditions directed by the Secretary of State. Amendment 17 seeks to put in place an appeals process for local authorities so that if they strongly disagree with regulations that the Secretary of State is trying to introduce through conditions that he or she has already applied, they can appeal against that decision. I understand that that puts us in a constitutionally difficult situation, because it is of course the Secretary of State who ultimately adjudicates on appeals, but I am sure it is not beyond the wit of all of us here to come up with an independent arbitration system whereby local authorities at least feel that they can put their case to an independent body or an individual and have them adjudicate on whether the Secretary of State has acted properly and reasonably.

The Opposition are quite relaxed about what the appeals system might be like. We understand that the amendment might cause some problems, but we are happy for the Government to come back with another amendment to ensure that at least there is no straightforward imposition of regulations by the Secretary of State—we understand that there will be some public consultation on those. There is nothing in the Bill that says the Secretary of State must abide by what the public say; it just says that there must be public consultation. It could totally agree with the local authority and the Secretary of State could say, “Sorry, public; I don’t agree with you. I think this development needs to proceed without such and such a condition being applied to it.” Both the public and the local authority would simply have to put up with that, whether they agreed or not.

It seems to us that, as we described this morning, that is quite a strong transfer of power to the Secretary of State with regard to setting pre-commencement planning conditions. We would like some process in the system to allow a stop if the local authority thought it necessary for an independent body to see whether the conditions were really needed. Both parties would then have to accept the decision. That body could be an existing tribunal. The Lands Tribunal already sits, so there may be a body already able to perform this task. Will the Minister consider that?

Amendment 20 tries to put a system in place—again, I hope the Minister finds this helpful—to deal with proposed section 100ZA(5), whereby there must be a written agreement between the developers and the local authority. Our proposal is about when an agreement cannot be reached and whether the Minister is really serious about speeding up development, as he said this morning. We understand that if agreement cannot be reached, the local authority will simply refuse the development and the process will have to start again. Our proposal seems to be a helpful way of speeding up development.

We are wondering whether, in putting a system in place where there has to be written agreement between the local authority and the developer, the Minister has given any consideration to a mediation system so that someone could talk to both sides to see whether there is a compromise that might enable the development to proceed without having to go down the line of refusal, with all the bitterness that could arise, not to mention slowing down the development. Our suggestion is sensible, but perhaps the Minister does not want a mediation system, in which case perhaps he will tell us whether his Department considered it and rejected it and, if so, for what reasons.

Amendment 21 takes that argument a little further: if the Government, for whatever reason, do not think that a mediation system would work, perhaps the Secretary of State should provide guidance on appeal routes. Cases might go to an appeal on the setting of a condition anyway, but we are trying to tease out whether the Minister has thought of a faster-track process for when the two parties cannot come together to agree a way forward with conditions.

As I am sure the Minister knows, that is what the British Property Federation asked for in a briefing sent to all Committee members. It asked that the Minister should set out

“a clear appeal route for cases when agreement cannot be reached: If a planning permission is refused or has to be appealed solely because of a failure to reach agreement on a precommencement condition, it should be possible to appeal that condition alone under s.73—that is to say, only the issues relevant to the condition in question should fall to be considered on appeal. It could be worth considering the introduction of a fast-track written representations process for these appeals that, if sufficiently quick, could be carried out without the possibility of costs. But if a hearing is required, then costs should sit fully with the party that has failed.”

That is another helpful suggestion for the Minister to take on board, so that we do not end up with costly and sometimes lengthy appeals, and so that when agreement cannot be reached, a fast-track system is in place. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Devolution) 2:15, 25 Hydref 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. May I refer you to my declaration of interest as a member of Oldham Council?

Clearly, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham, who added real weight to what the Secretary of State and the Minister are trying to achieve. The Bill allows the Secretary of State to make regulations that prescribe the circumstances in which certain conditions may or may not be imposed, but we believe that it is important for the planning authorities to be consulted.

There has been some conflict in the discussion that has taken place about the spirit in which the guidance has been written so far, because a lot relates to how matters of heritage, the natural environment, green spaces and flood mitigation will be accommodated. A lot of the pre-planning conditions that have been raised to date have dismissed such issues—we have talked about bat surveys, newts, drainage conditions and landscaping, all exactly the types of issues that fall into those categories. It is important that we are absolutely clear, not just for us, but for the public who will have to navigate what is already a very complex system for people not used to it, so that they know what to expect.

An appeals process makes complete sense. Any idea of natural justice allows people who are unhappy with a decision to go somewhere—where can be up for debate—and to have their argument heard again. That is right, and why worry about it? In this whole debate, in all our sittings, we have seemed to talk down what are quite small matters—to be honest, when we talk about them in Parliament they can be very small issues. The colour, type or texture of bricks are perhaps not issues that we should be discussing in this House, but they are very important for someone in a sensitive area with deep history and heritage when there is a development taking place next door.

If something is not agreed pre-commencement and then goes to appeal, is it right that someone who lives hundreds of miles away from the development should be able to express a very different view about the importance of that feature of the application? Local people want to know that, in the spirit of the neighbourhood plans, which we all welcome because they empower people to have more say over their communities, we will not snatch that control away from them unintentionally because we have not made accommodation further down here.

I will leave it there, but in the spirit of trying to make this work—nobody wants Bills that do not work in practice—let me add that the art of consensus is not waiting for people to come to our point of view, but accepting that we all have a responsibility to add to this process and take on board others’ views. If a good suggestion has been made, it should be taken on board.

Photo of Gavin Barwell Gavin Barwell Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Housing, Planning and London)

Addressing that last point directly, it is certainly my intention to achieve consensus where possible, but sometimes we have to accept that we disagree on issues. Let us look at the three amendments in detail and with a positive spirit.

Amendment 17 introduces a rather radical constitutional concept. The hon. Member for City of Durham went even further, suggesting that Governments always follow the results of every consultation they have, but I will not be drawn into that territory. In the current planning system, if an application for planning permission is refused by the local planning authority or granted with conditions, an appeal can be made to the Secretary of State under section 78 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. It is also possible for the applicant to apply to the local planning authority for the removal or variation of a condition attached to planning permission. If such an application is turned down, it is also possible to appeal to the Secretary of State in relation to that decision. As Opposition Members have recognised, in the unlikely event that an applicant refuses to accept a necessary condition proposed by a local planning authority, the authority can refuse planning permission for the application as a whole.

Amendment 17 would do a much more radical thing, which is to give an individual local authority the right of appeal against regulations passed by Parliament. There are some rather interesting constitutional questions about who would hear that appeal and what the result would be if it was upheld. Whoever was hearing the appeal would essentially be telling Parliament that the regulations were wrong and should be abandoned. The hon. Lady is always keen to stress that these are probing amendments and that she is merely inquiring into the Government’s thinking. I understand that, but this amendment raises some rather complex questions.

I will repeat the reassurances I have already given. Safeguards are in place under subsections (2) and (3) of proposed section 100ZA of the 1990 Act, inserted by the clause, which constrain the Secretary of State’s power to prohibit conditions imposed so that he or she can only prevent the use of conditions that clearly fail to meet the well-established policy tests in the national planning policy framework. It was very nice to hear the hon. Lady be so complimentary about the NPPF document. I share her admiration for it and, like her, cannot envisage a future Government wanting to unpick its key principles. Subsection (2) will ensure that conditions we all agree are necessary and appropriate to the development in question—for example, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet mentioned, to protect important matters such as heritage or the natural environment—are not prohibited through use of this power.

The second safeguard, in subsection (3), states that before making any regulations on how the Secretary of State might use this power, the Secretary of State must carry out a public consultation. As I have told the Committee, we are currently consulting on the detail of how we might wish to use those powers. Ultimately, we want local authorities and developers to work together from the earliest stage in the development process, including holding discussions about what conditions may be necessary and reasonable. That is the approach advocated in the NPPF and the planning guidance.

I understand what the hon. Lady is trying to achieve with amendment 20. Of course, we have to ensure that where agreements cannot be reached, a sensible solution can be found. However, I am not convinced that a formal mediation system would speed things up, which is the test that the hon. Lady set for it. Clause 7 builds on best practice, as set out in our planning guidance, which states that applicants and local authorities should engage at the earliest possible stage to come to an agreement about these matters. That is what we all want. The question is how best to frame the law and policy to make that happen.

My concern is that if agreement was not possible and there was then a mediation process, and then a possible appeal, that would effectively add another possible stage to the process, which I fear would delay things further. I repeat the assurance that I gave to my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, that it is clear in the Bill that if a planning authority felt that an applicant was being unreasonable in not being prepared to accept a well warranted pre-commencement condition, the application could be turned down and the council should be confident that that judgment would be backed up by the Planning Inspectorate.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing) 2:30, 25 Hydref 2016

I wonder whether the Minister has thought about circumstances in which a local authority could not get the developer’s agreement and may feel pressured into lifting a condition that it would otherwise think was necessary because the developer tried to suggest it was unreasonable by making the local authority go to appeal. We are not sure—I would like some assurances from the Minister on this—that that would not trigger the Secretary of State getting involved to impose restrictions on conditions. It seems to me that if the Secretary of State will be able to do that in such circumstances, local authorities will be placed in a difficult situation.

Photo of Gavin Barwell Gavin Barwell Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Housing, Planning and London)

I think I can provide the hon. Lady with quite a lot of reassurance on that front. I think she is envisaging a situation in which a particular application is the cause of conflict and the applicant goes to the Secretary of State and says, “Council A is being unreasonable and you should exercise your power under these regulations to resolve the problem.” I think that this House would want to see a more substantive body of evidence for the use of these regulations than one particular case, and in any event there would clearly be a significant time delay in drafting the regulations and bringing them before the House. I think I am also right in saying that there is a general presumption that there are two dates during a given year on which most regulations are brought in. Practically, it is highly unlikely that an applicant will be able to run off to Marsham Street and say, “We need help with this; deal with this.” Speaking for myself, I would not want to take decisions based on such one-off cases.

More generally, the hon. Lady raised the question of the balance of power in the planning system. I can speak only for myself, but my approach—it was when I was a councillor and it is now I am a Minister—is to listen to the evidence that people give me when they make complaints about things that they think are unreasonable about the planning system. If I am convinced that they have a case, I think the right thing to do is to shift public policy, as I am doing in relation to pre-commencement conditions.

People complain to me about other matters. For example, developers often complain about how local planning committees work. Local democratic representation has an important role in our planning system, and when developers fall foul of planning committees, it is often because they have not engaged with the relevant local political representatives early enough in the process—or they have engaged, they have been given clear feedback about the likely concerns, and they have not reflected or responded to those concerns.

The point that I have slowly been trying to work my way around to is that my advice to local authorities is to listen, and if a developer is saying, “This condition is unreasonable, for the following reasons,” to consider that argument fairly. But if, having reflected on it, they think that the argument has no merit and they are doing the right thing for their community, they should stick to their guns and not be afraid to stick up for the position they believe in.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

I have heard the Minister’s reassurances on specific individual cases, but what about the generality? For example, a lot of developers may come to Marsham Street and say, “We’re absolutely fed up with having to do bat surveys and think about newts”—or even, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport may say, hedgehogs—“and therefore we want these regulations to have much clearer guidance for local authorities in terms of restricting the conditions that they can apply to protect wildlife.” Is that a real danger of the clause? Would it not help to have an appeal or mediation system to deal with that?

Photo of Gavin Barwell Gavin Barwell Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Housing, Planning and London)

I can give the hon. Lady strong reassurance on that front. First, she has my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport completely wrong; far from wanting to further persecute hedgehogs, he is first to the barricades to protect and defend them.

Let us take the hypothetical example that the hon. Lady gave, where at some point in the future more and more developers are coming to the Secretary of State and saying, “There’s a real problem about the way in which the protection of bats is working and the onerous conditions that are being put on us.” If the Secretary of State was persuaded by those arguments, we would need to look at planning policy and whether we wished to shift it.

Broadly speaking, the test with all these things is one of proportionality. I think all of us would place significant weight on the protection of our wildlife and fauna. The test is always one of reasonableness, in terms of the costs incurred by the developer to do that. If a future Secretary of State decided that in his or her judgment that balance was wrong, that would involve a shift in policy. It would not be possible to outlaw a type of condition that is consistent with what current policy says. I hope that reassures the hon. Lady.

Photo of Oliver Colvile Oliver Colvile Ceidwadwyr, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

It is not only a case of trying to talk to politicians at an early stage; it is also about engaging with the local community, so that it feels it has a say and has been involved in the decision-making process.

Photo of Gavin Barwell Gavin Barwell Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Housing, Planning and London)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Clearly, councillors and Members of Parliament are representatives of those communities, and engagement with them is important, but he is quite right that developers should also be talking directly to local people in the relevant area. They should be talking and listening. In my experience of the planning system, that kind of positive engagement is very good for the developer because it avoids problems later on when things come to a planning committee.

The broad point I was making to the hon. Lady is that my approach, were I on a local planning committee, would be to listen to concerns that developers expressed about planning conditions and judge whether the evidence backed up those concerns. If it did, I would adjust my policy, but if it did not, I would stick to my guns and do what I thought was the right thing for my local community.

On amendment 21, the hon. Lady made an important point about providing clarity for the applicant during the process. The amendment seeks to ensure that associated guidance is made accessible to inform parties of the appeals procedure, should an agreement not be reached on the application of conditions. I agree that we need to ensure that applicants are fully aware of the options available to them and how they can pursue that action. However, I would like to assure hon. Members that that information can already be found online as part of our planning guidance, and I believe it provides the right support to those looking to appeal against the imposition of certain conditions. On that basis, I hope the hon. Lady will accept that the necessary protections are there.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

I thank the Minister for his helpful additional information on how this process might work in practice, particularly with regard to instances that might provoke the Secretary of State to develop and put out to consultation regulations to affect the conditions being applied by local planning authorities. I heard what he said about giving clarity to applicants about the appeals process and the circumstances in which the Secretary of State might get involved. I would like some time to consider that further. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

We now come to amendment 22 to clause 7. Before I call the shadow Minister, it might be helpful to advise the Committee that, in the light of the wide debate we have had on the amendments tabled to the clause, we are not planning to have a separate debate on clause stand part. If hon. Members wish to make any further comments about clause 7, I suggest they do so after the shadow Minister’s speech on amendment 22.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

I beg to move amendment 22, in clause 7, page 6, line 23, leave out subsection (5).

This amendment would ensure that local authorities are still able to make necessary pre-commencement conditions on developers.

Thank you for that direction, Mr McCabe. I will address my comments not only to amendment 22, but to some of our wider concerns about clause 7.

The Minister knows, because he heard the evidence, as we did, that clause 7 was the one bit of this relatively short Bill that concerned people who gave evidence to the Committee. In fact, a number of people thought that the clause was just as likely to slow down development as it was to speed it up. Councillor Newman, who represented the LGA, said:

“The whole perspective of what I am seeing in the Bill looks very much like a sledgehammer to crack a nut approach—another layer of red tape.”

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Ceidwadwyr, Thirsk and Malton

It is a pleasure, Mr McCabe, to serve under your chairmanship. Is not that exactly the opposite of what has been said? We are trying to get rid of the complexity of the system. Clause 7 creates conditions of good practice, where people sit down together and make an agreement. If a council is being reasonable and a developer is reasonable, there will be no issue. There will be written agreement and things will move forward. If either party is being unreasonable, an inspector will be able to look at that and judge for the other party. It is in everybody’s interests to sit down and get a sensible agreement on the conditions. Is not that a sensible piece of legislation?

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

The hon. Gentleman has described the situation that exists at the moment, not the position in which we will all be in after the Bill is enacted. The Bill puts in writing the agreement between the local authority and the developer. Significantly, as we have all been discussing, it gives powers to the Secretary of State to intervene in the process by producing regulations that will say something about the conditions that can be attached.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the system is working well at the moment because, as Councillor Newman reminded the Committee,

“nine out of 10 permissions are given, and 470,000 permissions are already granted for homes up and down the land that await development for various reasons.”

All those reasons are not pre-commencement planning conditions.

Hugh Ellis said:

“From our point of view, the concern about conditions is that they are fairly crucial in delivering quality outcomes.”––[Official Report, Neighbourhood Planning Public Bill Committee, 18 October 2016; c. 23, Q31.]

He also said that he had no evidence whatever that conditions result in delay. Duncan Wilson from Historic England said that local authorities are usually reasonable already. He did not feel that unnecessary conditions were being imposed, and he believed that that particular assertion could be challenged. That is what we have been attempting to do thus far today.

It is not just Her Majesty’s Opposition saying that all this is unnecessary; it is the Town and Country Planning Association, the LGA, Historic England and the British Property Federation, which said that it saw an issue with the discharge of conditions, but could not give us much detail on pre-commencement conditions.

I want to outline the evidence we have been given on why the clause is unnecessary. Various people who gave evidence said that they felt that if an application was turned down because an agreement could not be reached with the developer, it could take longer to argue about the condition and determine it than under the current set of arrangements. I point out to the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton that that point has been made not only by me but by lots of other people.

Amendment 22 seeks to remove subsection (5) from proposed section 100ZA. Local authorities could still make necessary pre-commencement conditions and still insist in certain circumstances, where they can reach an agreement with a developer, that those conditions stand. It would ensure that local authorities are not restricted from applying conditions that they think are necessary either by the Secretary of State or by not getting the written agreement and then the applicant going to appeal.

As we said earlier, it is quite difficult to envisage a set of circumstances in which the Secretary of State would step in and apply conditions, especially as the provisions of the framework that cover setting conditions are already heavily prescribed. Simply repeating them here for the Secretary of State to somehow come in and make a different decision under those same sets of restrictions and prescriptions seems a rather strange thing for the Government to do.

As I pointed out earlier, the NPPF has lots of paragraphs that deal with planning conditions, but I will not read them all out; we do not have time this afternoon. Some of the most pertinent to today’s discussions are paragraphs 203 to 206. Paragraph 203 is important because it makes the case that we have been making today about why we want local authorities to be able to have the same planning conditions. It states:

“Local planning authorities should consider whether otherwise unacceptable development could be made acceptable through the use of conditions or planning obligations. Planning obligations should only be used where it is not possible to address unacceptable impacts through a planning condition.”

I want to labour that point because the Minister’s national planning policy framework sets out for local authorities that conditions should be the primary vehicle that is used or put in place to try to make unacceptable developments acceptable. That is his direction to local authorities. He then comes along a few years down the line and says, “We might have given you that direction, but we now think you are overdoing it a bit,” which is presumably what the Government say, “so we are now going to take that power away from you. If you are using this power too much, we will have it limited by the Secretary of State.” However, that is not in paragraph 204, which states:

“Planning obligations should only be sought where they meet all of the following tests...necessary to make the development acceptable in planning terms”— that is in clause 7—and where they are

“directly related to the development; and fairly and reasonably related in scale and kind to the development.”

My point is that local authorities already have to ensure that their conditions follow the principles set out in clause 7 for the Secretary of State. So they should be doing all that anyway.

The NPPF states:

“Planning conditions should only be imposed where they are necessary, relevant to planning and to the development to be permitted, enforceable, precise and reasonable in all other respects.”

All that the Minister had to do to ensure that conditions were being properly applied was to give local authorities a direction saying, “By the way, local authorities, when you are putting these conditions on things, can you please make sure that they follow the national planning policy framework?”

However, the Minister had other levers that he could use in addition to directing local authorities to abide by the NPPF. There is a section of planning practice guidance on the Government’s website explaining exactly how to apply conditions. There are six tests. Conditions must be necessary, relevant to planning and to the development to be permitted, enforceable, precise and reasonable in all other respects.

The web page goes on to tell local authorities how to apply the tests, in case they are not aware of that—although as they assess applications all the time I imagine they would be aware; but nevertheless I accept that it is helpful. The guidance that local authorities get about setting conditions that are necessary is:

“A condition must not be imposed unless there is a definite planning reason for it”.

So it must be

“needed to make the development acceptable in planning terms.

If a condition is wider in scope than is necessary to achieve the desired objective it will fail the test of necessity.”

The test of whether conditions are relevant to planning asks:

“Does the condition relate to planning objectives and is it within the scope of the permission to which it is to be attached?

A condition must not be used to control matters that are subject to specific control elsewhere in planning legislation (for example, advertisement control, listed building consents, or tree preservation).

Specific controls outside planning legislation may provide an alternative means of managing certain matters”.

The examples given are public highways and highways consent. The guidance is clear about what “relevant to planning” means, and that sometimes it might mean having to rely on something immediately outside the planning system.

On whether a condition is relevant to the development to be permitted, the guidance states:

“It is not sufficient that a condition is related to planning objectives: it must also be justified by the nature or impact of the development permitted.

A condition cannot be imposed in order to remedy a pre-existing problem or issue not created by the proposed development.”

That is, again, very helpful and precise.

The next test is whether it would be practicably possible to enforce the condition:

“Unenforceable conditions include those for which it would, in practice, be impossible to detect a contravention or remedy any breach of the condition, or those concerned with matters over which the applicant has no control.”

What is meant by “enforceable” is also thus pretty clear. As to the requirement to be precise:

“Poorly worded conditions are those that do not clearly state what is required and when must not be used.”

So local authorities are even given guidance on how to word a condition—never mind its content.

The condition must also be reasonable in all other respects, and the guidance refers to conditions

“which place unjustifiable and disproportionate burdens on an applicant”.

What a pity it is that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton is not in his place, as he was talking about unreasonable burdens. He said that we could be placing burdens on developers. Actually, the Government’s own guidance states:

“Conditions which place unjustifiable and disproportionate burdens on an applicant will fail the test of reasonableness...Unreasonable conditions cannot be used to make development that is unacceptable in planning terms acceptable.”

There are lots and lots of pages of guidance about various circumstances in which conditions should and should not be used. There is the NPPF and the guidance, and there is further information from the Planning Advisory Service. If local authorities are in any doubt whatsoever about how they should be putting conditions together and the logic they should follow, and if they do not get everything they need from the guidance and the framework, the PAS document laying out the “Ten best practice principles” is very helpful. Principle 1 states:

“The number of conditions imposed through a planning permission should be kept to the minimum necessary to ensure good quality sustainable development.”

I ask the Minister to note that that actually mentions sustainable development.

The second principle is that applicants should provide “better detail” because that is likely to lead to fewer conditions.

Principle 3 states:

“Positive dialogue between applicant/planning authority/statutory consultees/community is likely to result in fewer conditions being imposed”.

The PAS document sets out a different way of achieving fewer conditions from the Government’s way of referring the matter to the Secretary of State. The Government’s own advisory service is suggesting that instead of taking the Government’s route, we take a route of dialogue, and try to use the dialogue between all the interested parties to come to an agreement about a condition or a lack of it.

Principle 4 states:

“If a matter is controlled under other regulatory regimes then it should not be the subject of a planning condition.”

Principle 5 states:

“A prescriptive condition setting out what would make the detail of a scheme acceptable is often a better option than an approval of detail condition.”

The document states that other considerations should include: whether the condition is deliverable; whether it is inappropriate in terms of timing or lack of clarity; whether phasing can increase risk and cost; and whether a planning obligation would be better than a condition. It also advises looking at notices, and thinking about whether conditions are enforceable or whether they can be done with some other notice, rather than a condition. It also states:

“If an approval of detail application involves consulting with the community/parish/neighbourhood planning forum, this should be flagged and explained in the reason for the condition.”

With all that information and guidance, it is extraordinary that the Government’s position seems to be, “We have set the framework, the guidance and detailed information for local authorities through the Planning Advisory Service. Yet you are still managing to come up with, on a fairly regular basis, a whole list of pre-commencement planning conditions that somehow manage to breach these particular requirements.” It is quite extraordinary for the Government to say that. As we have said already today, if they are going to make that claim, it has to be backed up with evidence, and so far the Committee has simply not seen that evidence.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Llafur, Dulwich and West Norwood 3:00, 25 Hydref 2016

My hon. Friend is setting out her case powerfully. It has been suggested that the proposal set out in clause 7 is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Does she agree that it is a sledgehammer to crack the wrong nut, because what really needs to be addressed is the resourcing of local authority planning departments, so that they can apply the existing guidance thoroughly and rigorously, give each application the time it needs and properly negotiate with applicants to ensure that applications are policy compliant?

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

My hon. Friend, as ever, hits the nail on the head. It is the wrong target, which is exactly our point. A lot of information is available to local authorities, never mind their experience of applying conditions. The problem is not setting conditions, but the lack of resourcing for planning departments. As we rehearsed this morning, most people’s problem with pre-commencement planning conditions is not the conditions themselves but the time it takes to discharge them because of the lack of resources in planning departments. A lot of information is available to local authorities, so in general one would not expect them to set unnecessary conditions, because that would clearly be in breach of all the documents I have discussed.

I picked up, at random, a list of pre-commencement planning conditions from my constituency. The developer has just written to me about them, to ask me to ensure that the local authority discharges them, and I thought, “Here’s a helpful bit of information that has just dropped into my inbox at a very appropriate time.” To give the Committee some context, the development is taking place in a conservation area—a rather large student accommodation block—so one would expect the local authority to take some care and use some diligence over the pre-commencement planning conditions, and indeed it has. I want to go through the list—I will do so as quickly as possible—because Government Members are saying that these pre-commencement planning conditions are often unnecessary, yet when I went through the list I could not find a single one that was unnecessary. The list states:

“No development shall take place until samples of the materials to be used in the construction of the building hereby permitted have been submitted to and approved in writing by the local planning authority.”

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

It is absolutely necessary; it is in a conservation area.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

Well, we will have to disagree. I think that if somebody is asking for planning permission—not just outline planning permission—for a major development in a conservation area that abuts a world heritage site, it is vital that the materials to be used are included as a pre-commencement condition.

Government Members will love the next part:

“No development shall take place until full details of the location of the proposed bat loft and a scheme for the provision of 10 house sparrow terraces have been submitted to and agreed in writing by the local planning authority.”

We all agreed earlier that protecting wildlife is really important. As the Minister knows, sparrows need to be protected if they are to survive and thrive. Such mitigation and compensation are necessary within the breeding bird assessment regulations.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Ceidwadwyr, North West Hampshire

I hope that the hon. Lady is not going to go through too extensive a list. One of the points that we have been trying to make is that quite a lot of the conditions that have been mentioned could be carried out during, say, the demolition phase; they do not have to take place or be agreed before the contractor starts at the site.

On the particular condition that the hon. Lady just raised, although it might be possible for the developer to agree a location for the bat and sparrow accommodation, there is no guarantee that the inmates will transfer willingly. Anybody who knows anything about bats—I happen to, strangely—will know that one can put up a bat loft to accommodate displaced bats but they might not use it for years, and they might never use it. They are capricious creatures that might decide to go elsewhere, perhaps because of the noise of the development.

The same is true of colonies of sparrows. Sparrows are strange birds, in that they do not travel very much. They tend to live in one place—as the hon. Lady said, they colonise particular areas—and they might even pick a particular tree that they never leave, but they are unlikely to move simply because someone decides to put up accommodation. All these things are iterative and could be done during the demolition phase. There is no reason to wait months and to have an argument about where the sparrow accommodation should go, because even the sparrows might not agree on where is decided.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

The hon. Gentleman might have had a point had there been a demolition phase. As there is not, it is important that all these things are known up front. A further condition was noise mitigation. The developers were asked for details of proposed foul and surface water drainage; for an archaeological investigation; to refrain from site clearance, preparatory work or development; for a tree-protection strategy; and for a site map.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

I shall take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and then explain why, given the circumstances, those preconditions were necessary.

Photo of Oliver Colvile Oliver Colvile Ceidwadwyr, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

I thank the hon. Lady very much. I should have declared an interest: I have a shareholding in a communications company. Does she agree that we need to ensure that we have hedgehog super-highways so that hedgehogs can get from one garden to another?

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. In the development in Durham that I am describing, because it abuts a wooded area in the centre of the city called Flass Vale, several local residents were concerned that there was no particular order in the pre-commencement conditions about the protection of hedgehogs. We are all terribly concerned about hedgehogs and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising their profile in Parliament—it is very much needed.

The point I wanted to make by going through that list—I have not gone through it all, but I have highlighted the most important conditions—is that it is an extremely contentious development in a very sensitive area of the city. Because the developers were made to provide all that information to the local community, the development is going ahead and the community is engaged with the developer in ensuring that the pre-commencement conditions are discharged. That seems to me to be a sensible way forward.

Had the developers been able to not agree, and to hope that six months down the line the Secretary of State would intervene and overrule the local authority, they might not have worked so hard to meet the conditions, and the local community might have been very upset with them indeed. As it is, as the local MP I have been able to ensure that everyone is speaking to each other about the trees and the sparrows, and about the hours during which work will take place on the site, as it abuts residential properties. The conditions have been carefully thought through by the local authority and were applied for a reason. I would like to hear why the Minister thinks—this is the important point—that those conditions do not comply with the requirements set out in the NPPF, because that is what the Government would have to show in order to have a provision in the clause to take away from local government the power to set the conditions, and give it to the Secretary of State.

The LGA and London Councils both made exactly that point to the Committee, so it is not just the Opposition who are saying that there is no evidence. The LGA said:

“The NPPF, and the associated national planning practice guidance, already clearly sets out expectations on use of planning conditions and the new primary legislation is unnecessary…There is little evidence to suggest development is being delayed by planning conditions. Planning conditions provide a vital role by enabling planning permissions to go ahead which would otherwise be refused or delayed while the details are worked out. They can also save developers time and money as they do not need to invest in detailed submissions until after the principle of the development is granted…Joint working between councils and developers is the most effective way of dealing with any concerns about planning conditions and the LGA strongly advocates the use of early, collaborative discussions ahead of planning applications being submitted for consideration.”

I do not think it could be clearer.

To rub the point in, London Councils said that there was little robust evidence to suggest that the current system of planning conditions was the reason for the under-supply of housing generally or for the slow build-out rates of residential developments. It also questioned the need for the Bill to prohibit certain conditions in defined circumstances, where they do not meet the national policy test. It said that adequate tests on conditions were already set out in national policy, and that there is already a system in place that allows applicants to appeal against conditions that they consider fail those tests.

London Councils, the LGA and lots of other people who gave evidence to the Committee appear to back up what the Opposition are saying, which is that there is already a huge amount of information, advice and guidance that local authorities have to apply in setting pre-commencement planning conditions—and, indeed, conditions per se. The provisions in clause 7 are unnecessary and are further evidence that the Government are anti-localist and are taking powers back to the centre.

Photo of Gavin Barwell Gavin Barwell Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Housing, Planning and London)

We had some of this debate this morning when we considered the first group of amendments, while Mr Bone was in the Chair. Let me rehearse some of the arguments. There are four points that I want to make.

First, it is pretty undeniable that we have had a very partial presentation of the evidence we received, so I want to put on the record again what the evidence we received is. I acknowledge that it is mixed. Certainly, people came to us and said, “I don’t see a problem here,” but there were also plenty of people who said that there is a problem, so let me counterbalance what the hon. Lady said. The district councils network said that it supports the Government in seeking to address conditions. It was interesting that when I put it to Councillor Newman, who was speaking on behalf of the LGA, that that was the view of district councils, which make up the vast majority of local planning authorities, it seemed to be news to him.

I quoted a number of major developers earlier. Persimmon said in its annual report that,

“planning-related pre-start conditions continue to increase the time taken to bring new outlets”— new homes—

“to market”.

Knight Frank stated that we

“need to address the increasingly onerous levels of pre-commencement conditions”.

The NHBC survey that I quoted provided clear evidence of small and medium-sized enterprises being concerned about, yes, the speed of discharge of planning conditions, but also the extent of those conditions.

I have not yet referred to some of the things said to us in the evidence sessions. For example, Mr Andrew Dixon, the head of policy at the Federation of Master Builders, told us that

“our members…consistently tell us that the number of planning conditions…has increased…significantly”.––[Official Report, Neighbourhood Planning Public Bill Committee, 18 October 2016; c. 6, Q1.]

From the Home Builders Federation, Mr Andrew Whitaker said that pre-commencement conditions had almost become “the default”. I suppose the Opposition will say, “We expect developers to say that”, but Mr Tim Smith, representing the Law Society, said:

“Do you really need to approve the details of your roof tiles before you start to demolish and clear the site?”––[Official Report, Neighbourhood Planning Public Bill Committee, 18 October 2016; c. 58, Q107.]

We have had plenty of evidence, therefore, in both what was sent to us and what was said to us in the evidence sessions, to back up the fact that there is an issue, which has also been acknowledged, I gently point out to the hon. Member for City of Durham, by two of our own Committee members. The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood gives a different explanation for this, but she acknowledged that some planning officers were imposing pre-commencement conditions simply because they did not have time to read the full papers submitted to them—that is a clear acknowledgment of a problem. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw is not in Committee today to defend himself, but I am sure that if, when he is, he feels that I have misrepresented him, he will point that out in very voluble terms. On Second Reading, he gave a personal example of his local authority applying an unnecessary pre-commencement condition. The evidence is there, therefore, that people are concerned about the issue.

On my second point, I should declare an interest. I have known Councillor Newman since I was knee-high to a grasshopper and have been arguing with him for a long time. He is a great one for metaphors; but said that the measure was

“a sledgehammer to crack a nut”––[Official Report, Neighbourhood Planning Public Bill Committee, 18 October 2016; c. 23, Q31.]

First, I am not sure whether the measure is a sledgehammer and, secondly, the evidence would suggest that the issue is not a nut. I asked him, in fact, how large a nut it was, but he had no evidence that he wished to present on that front.

The quotes that the hon. Member for City of Durham has just given us from the LGA and London Councils, which I acknowledge, were basically saying that the provision is unnecessary—although I dispute that—but they were certainly not saying that it will be harmful. I think that they were accepting that Government planning guidance and the NPPF are in place, and that the correct tests are there, in terms of conditions, but they were saying that all those things are being met already, so there is no need to put them in legislation. They were certainly not saying, “It’s wrong.” They were arguing about whether it was necessary to put something in legislation.

I want to end on two final points. We have had a long debate on the clause, which I suspect will prove the most controversial of all those in the Bill. The hon. Member for City of Durham quoted from the NPPF, and seemed to be trying to suggest that the fact that the Government were proposing the clause was somehow evidence that they were moving away from what the NPPF says about conditions. Let me quote again paragraph 206:

“Planning conditions should only be imposed where they are necessary, relevant to planning and to the development to be permitted, enforceable, precise and reasonable in all other respects.”

That is the key paragraph on conditions. She also quoted a passage relating to planning obligations, but that is section 106.

The language of the NPPF therefore clearly acknowledges that, on occasion, the best way to address an otherwise unacceptable impact of a development is to impose a planning condition. I want to make it very clear in Committee that that remains the Government’s view, that there will still be plenty of occasions on which local authorities wish to impose conditions, and sometimes pre-commencement conditions, and that we have no argument with that at all. All that we are seeking to do is to ensure that what is in guidance now will be reflected in statute, so that we can make sure that we deal properly with the issue.

The hon. Lady sort of suggested, “You’ve been saying it’s okay, but now you are saying not to do too much of it.” However, Government do that all the time. If a local authority came to me and asked, “How shall we fund our local services?”, I would reply, “Use council tax to fund your services,” but the Government would also say, “Don’t do too much of that, though; do not increase taxes by a wholly disproportionate amount, because that has a damaging impact on residents.” Government do that often; it is a question of striking the right balance.

I end on a slightly partisan note, because this is the main area of the Bill on which the Government and Opposition differ. I made the point on Second Reading—and I will reinforce it now—that there is developing consensus in the House that the country needs to raise its game when it comes to the number of homes built. The difficulty with the position taken by the official Opposition is that, on too many issues, they will the ends, but not the means.

There were three examples on Second Reading. The first was on dealing with the conditions that too often slow up the build-out of schemes. The second was on permitted development, which we are about to come to. Thirdly, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw objected to the duty to co-operate, which is critical to ensuring that if one authority cannot meet its housing need, those homes do not disappear, but are shared out among its neighbours. Those issues involve tough choices.

For me, the key moment in the debate was when I asked the hon. Member for City of Durham whether she accepted—regardless of whether she thought it was justified—that imposing a significant number of pre-commencement conditions on an applicant was bound to delay the point at which spades went into the ground. She did not answer that question. It is undeniable that imposing onerous conditions on an applicant will delay the process from the point of planning permission being granted.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing) 3:15, 25 Hydref 2016

Actually, I am pretty certain that I did answer the Minister’s question. I simply do not accept its premise, because we do not believe that pre-commencement planning conditions slow down development. In fact, much of the point that I have been making is that the system that the Government are about to put in place could slow down development, because more developers may now have to use an appeal route. We do not think that pre-commencement conditions slow down development; that is the Government’s case. It is not me who has to address that point; it is the Minister.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Ceidwadwyr, North West Hampshire

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because I could not intervene on an intervention. Would the Minister care to ask the hon. Member for City of Durham how long the period was between the granting of the application of which she spoke, and a spade going into the ground, while materials, sparrows, bats and all those sorts of things were dealt with? How long did the process take?

Photo of Gavin Barwell Gavin Barwell Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Housing, Planning and London)

The hon. Member for City of Durham may intervene, but I suspect that the answer is that it has not happened yet. I was going to come to that, but the hon. Lady gave a clear response to my point, so let me deal with her two points in turn.

The hon. Lady’s first argument is that there is a danger that the process will lead to more appeals, and will therefore slow things down, not speed them up. I do not agree, and I will make it clear why. If, at the moment, an applicant does not like the pre-commencement conditions imposed on them, they already have the right to appeal. It seems that there is no evidence that they are any more likely to appeal as a result of the fact that the local authority will now not be able to impose those conditions on them than they would have been otherwise.

The second argument, which is irrefutable, is that if an applicant is asked to do a large number of things before they can start any work on site, that is bound to delay the start of work on site. On most things, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire is beyond reproach, but on this issue, I blame him, because the hon. Member for City of Durham was in the midst of giving us a long and detailed list, and he rather hurried her up, so we did not get the full list. I managed to scribble down at least six of the conditions she mentioned. One condition was details of the materials to be used. That does not necessarily have to be a pre-commencement issue, but I accept that it is not that onerous. However, the designs of new homes for bats and birds will clearly take some time, as will the noise mitigation scheme, a drainage scheme, and tree protection schemes. Archaeological work is necessary and will always have to be pre-commencement, but it clearly takes time. All those things take time to design, work up, go to the local authority with, and get discharged.

It is difficult to comment with certainty, not knowing the site in question, and I would not want, without knowing the site, to express strong opinions, because the hon. Lady will have pictures of me printed and shown at local protests or something. None the less, some of those things, all of which it is important to deal with, can arguably be dealt with later in the process. It seems unarguable that the hon. Lady’s council requires of the developer a significant chunk of work that will take time and will delay the point at which the developer can get on site. The question of how many of those conditions are a necessary delay to the development is a legitimate source of public debate. The legislation tries to weed out those that are not necessary and focus on those that are.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

I fear that the Minister has chosen the wrong application to pick on, because it is a very particular one—for anyone without knowledge of it to say what should or should not be allowed is embarrassing, to say the least. In a local context, those issues could well be extremely important. If you, Mr McCabe, lived next door to that development, you would want to know that the noise mitigation element would be dealt with before it was approved. If it could not be dealt with, we would all want to have a say on whether it was appropriate for the development to go ahead at all. With all due respect, I am not convinced that this was the right battle for the Minister to choose.

Photo of Gavin Barwell Gavin Barwell Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Housing, Planning and London)

I thought that I had been careful, but perhaps I was not careful enough; I think I said that I did not know the site in question and could not comment on the detail.

Let me comment instead on a generic application in which these issues arose. My view, generally speaking, is that materials are important, particularly in a conservation area, but their colour does not necessarily need to be agreed before a spade can go into the ground. The situation of bats, birds or other species that inhabit a site clearly needs to be dealt with before their habitats are disturbed. However, on a large site, of which a part was existing buildings and another part was a wooded area where those species had their homes, work could be done on the buildings before touching the habitat. Noise mitigation needs to be dealt with at the outset, because clearly initial works can be noisy. On drainage, a clear commitment would be needed at the outset that the drainage solution would be sustainable, but the detail would not be needed until the detailed works were to be done. Archaeology clearly needs to be considered.

On a generic site, some of those points are clearly pre-commencement, but I argue that some are not. It cannot be denied, however, that the more a developer is asked to do before a spade goes into the ground, the longer the wait until that happens. The Government are therefore quite right to focus on this issue, alongside lots of other issues such as raising the performance of our utility companies, resourcing our planning departments better so that they can take decisions more quickly, and getting section 106 agreements more quickly.

The hon. Member for City of Durham cited a statistic that gets to the core of the issue. The coalition Government’s planning reforms have done an amazing job of increasing the number of homes given consent through our planning system. In the year to 30 June, a record number of homes were given consent. However, we have seen a growing gap between consents and homes being started, because the number of homes being started has also gone up but not by anything like as much. A strategy to get the country building the homes we desperately need therefore needs to address bridging that gap. My contention is that these pre-commencement conditions and other abuses of planning conditions are one issue, albeit not the only one, that we need to address in order to do that.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

I will start by addressing the specific question asked by the hon. Member for North West Hampshire: when did the scheme I mentioned start on site? Planning permission came through in April and the developer was hoping to start on site in August. Actually, I got a phone call to say that there was a delay in the system. Hon. Members are right that there was a delay in the system, but it had nothing whatsoever to do with the pre-commencement planning conditions, which were not mentioned at all; it was because the Brexit vote meant that the developer lost its funding and had to go out to the market again to get support for the development. It was therefore unable to start on site until October—and start in October it did. We have had the first meeting with residents, and they all agree that the pre-commencement conditions were essential.

We do not accept that pre-commencement planning conditions are the reason for the slowness of build-out; we think that that has something to do with the general market conditions in this country. The Minister will know that volume house builders hold on to land and build out at a particular rate to protect the value of their product. We need major interventions in that system. But even though he believes that pre-commencement conditions produce delays in the planning system, he does not need the clause. He does not need the Secretary of State’s intervention and all the things that go with it. The Minister simply needs to tell local authorities that they have to abide by the national planning policy framework and not deviate from it in the setting of pre-commencement conditions. Unnecessary conditions and all the problems that he seems to have identified will then not emerge, because they will not be possible. We profoundly disagree with him and his colleagues on this point, and on that basis I would like to press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 4, Noes 10.

Rhif adran 1 Christmas Tree Industry — Restrictions on power to impose planning conditions

Ie: 4 MPs

Na: 10 MPs

Ie: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Na: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Question accordingly negatived.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 10, Noes 4.

Rhif adran 2 Christmas Tree Industry — Restrictions on power to impose planning conditions

Ie: 10 MPs

Na: 4 MPs

Ie: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Na: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 2