County councils’ default powers in relation to development plan documents

Neighbourhood Planning Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:30 pm ar 27 Hydref 2016.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Schedule (County councils’ default powers in relation to development plan documents) makes provision for the exercise of default powers by county councils in relation to development plan documents.—

This new clause and NS1 enable the Secretary of State to invite a county council to prepare or revise a development plan document in a case where the Secretary of State thinks that a district council in the county council’s area is failing to prepare, revise or adopt such a document.

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment (a) to Government new clause 5, at end insert—

“with the agreement of district councils.”

Government new schedule 1—County councils’ default powers in relation to development plan documents.

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

New clause 5 is the next part of the package of amendments that the Government have tabled in relation to local plans. It allows for the introduction of new schedule 1, which enables the Secretary of State to invite a county council in a two-tier area to prepare a local plan for a district local planning authority in the county in instances where, despite having every opportunity, the district has failed to do so.

The Government absolutely want to see local planning authorities producing their own local plans, but where that is not happening it is right that we take action to ensure that communities and business can benefit from the clarity and certainty that having a plan can provide. The Committee has already accepted the principle that the Secretary of State should have the power to direct a group of local planning authorities to work together on a joint plan. This would be an alternative way of addressing the same problem—namely, to direct a county council to produce a plan for a local planning authority area.

It may help the Committee to know that the Secretary of State can already invite the Mayor of London or a combined authority to prepare a plan for an authority in their respective areas under similar circumstances. New clause 5 would extend the same opportunity to county councils in two-tier areas so that, as far as possible, local plans are developed at the most appropriate local level.

I said in a previous debate that the powers for intervention will merely be for the Secretary of State to produce a plan. I think we would all agree that that should very much be a last resort, and that we should explore different options. It would be preferable to have other people in the local area being directed to get involved if a local planning authority is not doing its job. The new clause will work by amending schedule A1 to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.

Under our proposals, a county council will be invited to prepare, revise or approve a local plan only if the local planning authority has failed to progress its plan, and when the Secretary of State thinks it is appropriate. County councils are directly accountable authorities, with the knowledge and understanding of the development needs of their areas, so in the Government’s opinion they are suitable bodies to prepare a plan for the areas they represent.

New schedule 1 will amend paragraphs 3 to 8 in schedule A1 to the 2004 Act to ensure that the existing powers available to the Mayor of London and combined authorities also apply to county councils. The county council would be responsible for preparing the plan and having it examined. It may then approve the document, or approve it subject to modifications recommended by the inspector, or it may direct the local planning authority to consider adopting it. The new schedule will also enable the Secretary of State to intervene in the preparation of a document by the county council.

Should the Secretary of State believe it is appropriate to step in to ensure that a plan is in place, new clause 5 and new schedule 1 will give him a further option, alongside existing powers, so that decisions are taken at the most local level possible. I commend the new clause and the new schedule to the Committee.

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

With your permission, Mr McCabe, I will speak to new clause 5 and amendment (a) at the same time.

The new clause is interesting. The Minister has given us some helpful clarification of the circumstances in which the measures it contains might be invoked, but I suspect that district councils might require a bit more information. I am sure the Minister does not need me to tell him that district councils are not terribly happy with the provisions in the new clause, which allow the Secretary of State to invite a county council to prepare a development plan document if he or she thinks that a district council in the county council’s area is failing to prepare, revise or adopt such a document.

In terms of sequencing, if a local authority has not prepared a local plan, when might the Government decide to invoke new clause 5 and when might they decide to invoke new clause 4? Presumably, both could be used to bring forward a plan that is not being developed. If the Minister could say something about that it would be extremely helpful.

Amendment (a) was tabled to put on the record the fact that the power in the new clause would allow quite a drastic thing to be done to district councils. I suppose some might be mightily relived, but others will not be. There is no evidence in the new clause or the attached new schedule that efforts will be made to involve district councils in the process, either in making the decision to move the responsibility for producing the plan to a county council or subsequently, once that decision has been taken.

Such involvement might be quite important, particularly because, aside from unitary counties, county councils might have limited planning expertise. They have planning departments that look after minerals and so on, but they may not have the planning expertise to deal with the whole range of housing and other issues that need to be in a local plan. It seems to me quite important for the district councils to be involved at some stage if those plans are to have local acceptance.

Hardly surprisingly, although district councils are not very happy, the County Councils Network has welcomed new clause 5 and new schedule 1. However, even the County Councils Network says in its briefing to the Committee that peer support may be appropriate to facilitate the signing off of the plans, and something may need to be done to work with district councils in addition to a direction from the Secretary of State. I thought it was quite interesting that it mentioned that, and it reinforces my point about amendment (a).

The Minister will know that the District Councils Network has expressed serious concerns about the new clause and the new schedule. It would much prefer a collaborative process. It feels that the new clause casts district councils aside and leaves county councils to get on with the job rather than district councils being expected to work with county councils to see plans through. The district councils have put a series of questions to the Committee. Given what the new clause will do to some district councils’ local plan-making functions, it is worth taking a few minutes to go through those questions.

The first question is:

“As County Councils are not local planning authorities, what estimate has the Minister made of the extra time it would take for the County Council to carry out the functions…and where would this expertise come from?”

Will that expertise be expected to come from the district council involved, other district councils or the county council’s neighbours? That is not clear. The Minister may intend to follow up on this point in regulations, but it is also not clear how district councils will be notified of the plan-making process, what rights they have to be consulted or what requirement there will be for county councils to continue to seek to work in partnership with district councils.

Given that the process of public involvement in local plans is clear, the District Councils Network also asked what the public’s involvement will be when county councils have plan-making powers. County councils typically deal with much bigger areas, so some clarity may need to be given about how exactly affected residents will be consulted by the local authority. That is a particularly important question. I am sure that the Minister will reassure us, but I sincerely hope that new clause 5 is not intended in any way to bypass the local community and its input into the local plan-making process. It would help us all in our deliberations on new clause 5 to have more information about that.

Not surprisingly, the district councils are concerned that the costs of producing local plans will fall on them. They have asked a whole set of questions about funding, but I will wrap them up and paraphrase them. What is there in the system to prevent county councils from spending money in an extravagant way, on things such as exhibitions about the plan, lots of public consultation and glossy documents? The district councils will have to pay for that, so what will be in place to ensure cost-effectiveness in the delivery of plans and efficient use of resources?

Lastly, given that there are a number of legal challenges, what process is in place to ensure the formal adoption of the plan? In the end, is the plan then adopted by the district council or the county council on behalf of it? With that set of questions, I will leave it there and hear what the Minister has to say about new clause 5 and amendment (a) on consultation.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Ceidwadwyr, Thirsk and Malton 2:45, 27 Hydref 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I want to say a few brief words on new clause 5 and to get a thorough understanding from the Minister about a particular situation that I, and I am sure others, might have in my constituency. This is about a local authority’s ability to use new clause 5 or possibly new clause 4 to avoid its responsibility in terms of required housing in its area, and how the Minister or Secretary of State will determine why one local authority is determined not to take its fair share of required housing.

I have a number of local authorities in my constituency, some of which are very keen to deliver houses and are doing so. One or two are not. How do we deal with a situation in which one errant local authority does not appear to want to produce a local plan that meets its objectively assessed housing need, and so uses new clause 4 or new clause 5 through the back door? I have not dreamed that situation. It is not that production of the local plan is being prevented, but there might simply be a political reluctance in the local authority to put housing in its area or there might be an ongoing battle to deliver a proper local plan.

That authority could argue, “We haven’t got the land in our local authority area, so we think all these houses should go in the adjoining local authority area”—which has a sound local plan and is delivering on its housing numbers. It might say, “Houses shouldn’t go in my local authority area. They should go in this adjoining one because they’ve got lots of space and lovely green fields to put the houses in.” The errant local authority might argue that houses should go into another local authority. We then come along and use new clause 4 or new clause 5 to say, “This has to be a joint plan, and these houses will have to go into the other local authority area that’s doing its job properly.” How will the Minister or the Secretary of State determine situations in which a local authority is not carrying out its duty to assess need and deliver those houses? Will the Minister look into that situation?


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

It has been a useful debate, and I hope I can provide some clarification. Perhaps a mistress of understatement, the hon. Lady said that district councils were not terribly happy and county councils were reasonably happy. My message to district councils listening to this debate is that it is completely in their own power to ensure that this new clause is never used. All they need to do is produce local plans that address housing need in their area, and there will never be any reason at all for the Secretary of State to make use of this power. The only circumstances in which the power could ever be used would be if a district council somewhere in the country were failing to produce a local plan that met need in its area. To county councils, I would say, “Don’t get too excited,” because I do not think the intention is to make regular use of this power.

I will make one observation. When you become a Minister, you get given a mountain of brief to read into your subject. Something that stood out from one brief was the powers that the Government have taken to intervene on local planning authorities that are not deciding a high enough percentage of major applications within the specified timescale. That was quite contentious when the powers went through Parliament. What is interesting about it is that it has, I think, been used only three times. The existence of a power that says that the Planning Inspectorate is now going to determine planning applications rather than the relevant local authority determining them, has acted as a real spur to people to raise their game. It has not been necessary to use the power very often at all, and I suspect that this power might serve the same purpose. If it has provoked a strong reaction among district councils that do not ever want to see this happen, and that leads to more of them adopting their plans on a timely basis, I will be very happy never to have to use the power.

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

Does the Minister accept that one of the consequences—whether intended or unintended, I am not sure—of the possible designation of local planning departments as failing on the basis of the number of their determinations that are overturned by the inspector, is that, in practice, local authorities are very reluctant to turn any application down, lest it be overturned on appeal? That is most unfortunate, because we want local authorities to be able to determine an application on its merits, and not for it to be favoured because authorities are worried that they are going to lose their ability to determine all applications.

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

That would be highly unfortunate and also unnecessary because the performance metric is purely about determining planning applications. It is just about ensuring that decisions are made within the statutory timescale.

Coming back to the issue the hon. Lady is probing with her amendment, what would be most useful—what she was really interested in—is some steer from me about when the powers under Government new clauses 4 and 5 might be used. The speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton was useful in providing a pointer about that. I will make two observations. One is generic: the hon. Lady was expressing nervousness that we might be back here in 12 months’ time debating another planning Bill. One of the things I wanted to do with this Bill was make sure that we took the necessary range of intervention powers in this area, so that we would not have to keep coming back and saying, “Actually, in this case we would like you to do this.” So I sat down with my officials and went through a variety of different situations and how Ministers might want to respond to them.

Taking my hon. Friend’s hypothetical example, if there is a local planning authority that is heavily constrained in terms of land—that is doing its best but is really struggling to meet housing needs in its area because of the make-up of that area—that would naturally lead to the use of new clause 4, because one might then look and say, “There are other authorities in the area that are not so constrained and if you worked together across that wider area, could you meet housing need across the area?”

My hon. Friend then mentioned a different kind of example: an authority that—an objective observer might suggest—had plenty of potential to meet housing need within its own area and was just ducking taking the necessary decisions. An intervention there, asking the authority to work with some neighbouring ones to produce a plan, would probably not work because they would continue to obstruct their neighbours and, as my hon. Friend said, potentially seek to pass the burden on to others. This might be a more suitable intervention power in those cases.

If the hon. Lady applies her mind to it, she can probably think of a couple of cases around the country in which a number of planning authorities within a county council area are struggling to meet their obligations. In that situation, looking at a county-wide solution to meeting housing need over a wider area might be an appropriate way forward. In some of those cases, county councils might choose to work with the relevant district councils, even if the Secretary of State gave them the formal responsibility.

Let me provide a little reassurance on a number of the detailed points that the hon. Lady made. She talked about three main things: skills and resources, and whether county councils had the skills and resources to do this work; the process in relation to the adoption of a plan—so if a county council produced a plan, how that plan got adopted; and also reassurance over residents’ involvement. I will deal with them in reverse order. I can provide her with complete reassurance on resident involvement. Local plans—whoever prepares or revises them—are subject to a legal requirement to consult the public and others, along with the right to make representations on the plan. From the point of view of residents living in a particular area, their ability to have their say and input on a plan will be completely unaffected. I hope that provides complete reassurance on that point.

Adoption is set out in the detail of new schedule 1, which goes with the new clause. I point members of the Committee to new paragraph 7C(4), which says:

“The upper-tier county council may…approve the document, or approve it subject to specified modifications”— there it refers to modifications that the inspector recommends—

“as a local development document, or…direct the lower-tier planning authority to consider adopting the document by resolution of the authority”.

The county council has a choice: it can take the legal decision and have the plan adopted, or—perhaps in circumstances in which it has worked with the district council to get to that point—it might be prefer to say, “Okay, there is the plan. It would be better for the district council to make that decision.” Either option is available.

On the resources front—financially, as it were—there are clear provisions in place. Let me deal with the skills front. County councils do have significant input and involvement in the local plan-making process. They often have a significant contribution to make in terms of infrastructure—highways infrastructure and some of those other issues—but clearly if the Secretary of State felt that a particular county council did not have the relevant skills to do the job, he or she would not seek to use this provision and might rely on those in new clause 4.

On resourcing and the financial side, there are provisions that can provide reassurance. A county council has to be reimbursed for any expenditure where it prepares a plan because a local planning authority has failed to do so. Likewise, when it is necessary for the Government to arrange for a plan to be written, they can recover the costs.

I recognise—perhaps it is inevitable—that, say, organisations that represent district councils will have concerns about the proposal, but I hope I have provided reassurance. First, I do not expect the provision to be used on a regular basis, and indeed district councils have in their hands the means to ensure that it is never used. Secondly, the Government have sought to address concerns on resident involvement, the adoption process and the skills and resourcing of county councils. Thirdly, the right thing to do in the Bill, given the strong cross-party consensus on the need to get plans in place, is to ensure that, where it is necessary to intervene, the Secretary of State has the powers to think creatively about the ways in which that might happen.

My view in terms of the hierarchy is that the preferable solution would be to direct a planning authority to work with some of its neighbours. If that were not viable, the county council route is an interesting route. My strong view is that the worst option is ultimately that the Government have to step in, intervene and write a plan because, by definition, they are the most distant from the relevant local community. I hope I have provided the reassurance that the hon. Lady was looking for.

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

I thank the Minister for that helpful and detailed response. There are just two issues I would like him to go and ponder. First, what might be put in place to ensure that costs are kept at a reasonable level for district councils, bearing in mind that many local authorities really are struggling financially? Secondly, in the interests of keeping a positive relationship going between the district council and county council, what could be put in place to try to ensure that they work together in the production of a plan? I will come to amendment (a) at the appropriate point.

Question put and agreed to.

New clause 5 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 6