MP warns over threat to localism in planning

Arundel and South Downs MP Nick Herbert has warned that the Government’s new policy on neighbourhood planning is in danger of being undermined by a return to central diktat.

Mr Herbert’s comments came in a Commons speech - his first since he left the Government in September - during the second reading debate on the Growth and Infrastructure Bill.

Calling on the Government to support localism in planning, the MP also raised concerns about the inadequacy of local infrastructure in West Sussex in the face of major development.

He strongly supported the Government’s plan to improve broadband provision in rural areas, but expressed concern about new measures in the Bill that might damage the protected landscape of the South Downs National Park.

Mr Herbert began by praising the Localism Act which, for the first time, puts decision-making on planning into the hands of local communities. The Act allows each parish to publish a neighbourhood plan which sets out the level of housing they think is appropriate and where it should be located. It also allows villages to designate ‘community assets’, like a village hall, that should be protected from development.

But the MP expressed his concern that this system was being undermined: “If decisions are taken away from local communities, the danger is that responsibility is also taken away - the responsibility of community leaders to take decisions that are sometimes difficult .… Neighbourhood planning is an incredibly good concept. I would like to see it flourish, but it is in danger of being undermined by a series of things. I hope that the Government will look again at the neighbourhood planning process and how it might be boosted, because it is the right way to provide sustainable levels of housing provision.”

Mr Herbert warned that the continuation of the previous Government’s regional spatial strategies such as the South East Plan - which is due to be scrapped within months - was leaving communities vulnerable to speculative planning applications. The “swift abolition” of the South East Plan was therefore essential.

But the MP also said that the way in which district councils were required to assess housing need also had to be looked at. “Otherwise, the very principle that we set out in the Localism Act 2011 - that regional spatial strategies should go and that powers should be handed down to local communities - will, in effect, be undermined. If the Planning Inspectorate ends up taking decisions that should have been taken locally and imposes the same numbers as those proposed previously, nothing will be gained and localism will be undermined.”

Mr Herbert warned that unsustainable levels of new housing in West Sussex would worsen already serious problems with schools, roads, and sewers. Local infrastructure should be a serious consideration in any planning approvals.

The MP said: “I represent a rural constituency with no large towns; it has only villages, small towns and countryside - and important countryside, at that. It already has problems with congested roads and, in some villages, of over-subscribed local schools .... Worst of all, however, is the problem of sewage. The levels of development in some villages have not been matched by adequate sewerage provision .... That can result in sewage flowing though people’s gardens .... There is inadequate local infrastructure to support the present level of housing provision in those villages.”

Mr Herbert went on to praise the Government’s plans to roll-out 100 per cent broadband coverage, and 90 per cent superfast, by 2015. Plans for broadband in West Sussex have been held up by the European Commission but should soon get the green light. £6.26 million of Government money will be spent alongside matched funding from the county council.

But the MP urged caution in relaxing controls in the National Park to hasten broadband roll-out. He emphasised that broadband provision in the Park areas was just as important as elsewhere, and he wanted it to happen swiftly. But along with other MPs, some of who raised the issue of mobile phone masts, he was concerned that relaxing the planning provisions for protected landscapes might be a dangerous precedent that would open the way to other development in the future.

Mr Herbert said: “I am concerned about the provision in clause 7 [of the Bill] that will override the key purpose of a national park to conserve beauty, and I would like to hear more from the Government about that. I need to understand more about the practical effects of that provision, and about the precedent that it will set. I need to be persuaded that it will not damage the landscape, which it is so important to preserve, although I of course see the importance of securing improved broadband provision.”

Responding to the debate, the Minister of State in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Michael Fallon MP, said that he would write to Mr Herbert to address his concern over National Parks. He said that the new measures in the Bill would “promote more efficient planning” and “encourage faster roll-out of broadband.”

The Growth and Infrastructure Bill received its Second Reading by a majority of 92 votes and will now received detailed consideration in Committee.