Fiona Bruce MP Request to strengthen Neighbourhood Plans

Housing and Planning Minister responds to Congleton MPs request to strengthen influence of Neighbourhood Plans in planning decisions

Yesterday in the House of Commons, Minister of State for Housing and Planning, Gavin Barwell MP, responded to a strongly worded speech by Fiona Bruce MP when she pressed the Government to accept the work put in by local residents, such as those in Brereton and Sandbach in the Congleton Constituency, to create and agree Neighbourhood Plans and to strengthen their impact in the Planning system.
The full text of Fiona’s speech is below.
In response the Minister said
The National Planning Policy Framework already says clearly that, where a planningapplication conflicts with a Neighbourhood Plan that has been brought into force, planning permission should not normally be granted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton pointed out, the issue here is that, where a local planning authority does not have a five-year land supply, that is not a normal circumstance and the presumption in favour of development in some cases—not all—overrides Neighbourhood Plans.
In the Written Ministerial Statement, I made it clear that from yesterday, where communities plan for housing in their area in a Neighbourhood Plan, those plans should not be deemed out of date unless there is a significant lack of land supply—that is, under three years. That applies to all plans for the next two years, and for the first two years of any plan that is put into place. That will give a degree of protection that has not been available. The message needs to go out clearly from this House that local authorities must get up-to-date plans in place to provide that protection for Neighbourhood Plans. I hope that that reassures people. As I said, I have written both to the Planning Inspectorate and to local councils on that issue.”

The Minister also issued a Written Ministerial Statement yesterday, the full copy of which is attached.
Speaking after the announcement Fiona Bruce saidI am pleased that Ministers have listened to my constituents concerns, both as I expressed in the Chamber of the House of Commons yesterday and in recent meetings on this issue which I have had with the Housing and Planning Minister and that, in response, Ministers reviewed the planning impact of Neighbourhood Plans with immediate effect. It remains to be seen how this will improve decisions to more fairly reflect the work which has been and is being put in to Neighbourhood Plans in the Congleton Constituency. There is also the question, now to be considered, as to whether Judicial Review of any decision already made by the Planning Inspectorate should be applied for in light of the fact that these regulations have come to effect immediately, and that any Judicial Review would therefore be judged in the light of them.”

Fiona Bruce’s Speech
House of Commons Chamber 13-12-16
Debate on Neighbourhood Planning

·         Fiona Bruce

It is imperative that Ministers act to restore the confidence of my Congleton constituents in the status of Neighbourhood Plans specifically and in Localism more widely. My constituents consider that the status and application of Neighbourhood Plans is confusing, contradictory, inconsistent and unfair. The area has no Local Plan and no agreed five-year planned housing supply. For years, local communities in my constituency have been bombarded with a barrage of inappropriate planning applications by developers gobbling up green spaces, including prime agricultural land, and putting pressure on local schools, health services, roads and other services. It is essential that Ministers take action to give Neighbourhood Plans the full weight in practice that the Government say they have in theory. It is for that reason that residents in my constituency have in some cases taken years to prepare Neighbourhood Plans. I respect the Government’s good intentions, but they are not being carried out.
The Government Factsheet on the Bill states:
“Neighbourhood Planning gives communities direct power to develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood and shape the development and growth of their local area. For the first time communities can produce plans that have real statutory weight in the planning system.”
That is the theory, but let me tell hon. Members about the practice. The parish of Brereton was the first area in my constituency to produce a Neighbourhood Plan. It is a rural farming area mainly—just 470 houses are dotted about it. It developed a Neighbourhood Plan over many years, and it was voted in with a huge 96% majority vote on a 51% turnout. It is a very intelligent document. It has no blanket objection to development, but does say that development should be appropriate in scale, design and character of the rural area of Brereton, and that it should not distort that character. It says that small groups of one or two properties built over time would be appropriate, supporting the rural economy and providing accommodation for those with local livelihoods, which seems reasonable.
I warmly welcomed the plan when it was produced and when it was adopted. However, the Brereton example is one of several in which planning applications that are contradictory to the best intentions of local residents have been approved by the inspectorate. Brereton is a parish of 470 houses. Within the last month, one development of no fewer than 190 houses has been allowed on appeal. Another application for 49 houses is coming down the track. That is more than half the size again of the parish.
Because Brereton has very few facilities—for example, it does not have a doctors’ surgery—nearby Holmes Chapel will be pressurised further. That village already has hundreds of recently built properties or properties for which permission has been given. The health centre is full, the schools are under pressure and traffic pressures render roads dangerous. Unlike Brereton, Holmes Chapel has not yet completed its local Neighbourhood Plan, but people there are now asking whether it is worth the time and effort of completing one.
The position is the same in Goostrey, another nearby village that is in the process of developing its Neighbourhood Plan. A resident and member of the Goostrey Parish Council Neighbourhood Plan Team wrote to me. He says that such decisions are “demotivating when it comes to creating Neighbourhood Plans, and that they make encouraging people to get involved in the Goostrey plan much harder”—he refers not only to the Brereton decision, but to the inconsistency of two recent decisions down the road in Sandbach, where one application for a substantial housing development was dismissed based on the Neighbourhood Plan, and another, cheek-by-jowl down the road, was approved with the Neighbourhood Plan carrying little or no weight, even though there was no five-year housing supply in both cases.
I have been told by local residents that what really offended people in Brereton was the fact that
“at the public examination of the Brereton Neighbourhood Plan in November 2015 at Sandbach Town Hall, the Examiner insisted our Plan and its policies were sufficiently robust to counteract mass housing development and protect the rural character of the Parish. He asserted publicly that Brereton, as a rural Parish, did not have a responsibility to provide mass housing towards the wider strategic housing target—yet, the Appeal Inspectorate essentially has argued the complete opposite. Why are Government representatives involved in planning matters holding completely opposing and inconsistent views?”
Another resident in yet another Parish who has worked for almost two years with neighbours to develop a Neighbourhood Plan area designation has now resigned from the Steering Group, in what the constituent calls “total disillusionment”, saying:
“I do not understand how this decision is either fair or reasonable…I conclude that the Neighbourhood Planning Process is a Government-sponsored confidence trick”.
Those are strong words, but they express how many of my constituents feel. Another said that
“there seems little point in producing a Neighbourhood Plan if it is considered irrelevant.”

·         Sir Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con)

Does my hon. Friend agree that consultation is meaningless if the people consulted are then ignored?

·         Fiona Bruce

That is what I am saying. Time and again, our constituents are being encouraged to produce Neighbourhood Plans. About two years ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), then a Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government, came at my invitation to Sandbach town hall to talk to residents concerned about the barrage of applications by developers to build thousands of houses across my constituency. He said that the way to protect our local communities was by developing Neighbourhood Plans. That galvanised communities such as those that I have mentioned into working towards Neighbourhood Plans. As others have said, some residents have put hundreds of hours into doing so.

·         James Heappey

My hon. Friend describes a situation that I am sure we all recognise well. In my experience, many local communities engage positively with their neighbourhood and local plans to identify the housing need in their area, and then plan accordingly. Does she share my frustration, however, that because of the robust protections afforded to the Bristol and Bath green belt to the north of my constituency, despite my communities having made plans in Somerset, much of the former’s housing demand is being displaced southwards, so we end up having to absorb that as well, outwith our planning?

·         Fiona Bruce

I do very much empathise with my hon. Friend’s concerns.
Another resident says that unless Neighbourhood Plans are given significant weight—that is what I and many colleagues have asked the Minister to ensure—their community
“would advise others not to put the time and effort into what is increasingly looking like a futile and wasteful exercise”.
Another resident pointed out that the Factsheet I referred to states, in response to the question,
“should a community produce a Neighbourhood Plan where the Local Plan may not be up-to-date?”,
that through
“a Neighbourhood Plan, communities can have a real say about local development…and protect important local green spaces”.
It also states that
“the NPPF is very clear that where a planning application conflicts with a Neighbourhood Plan that has been brought into force, planning permission should not normally be granted (NPPF para. 198)”.
Contradictorily, in the case of Brereton, the inspector’s report allowing the appeal for these 190 houses stated:
“Reference was made to paragraph 198 of the Framework, which provides that where a planning application conflicts with a Neighbourhood Plan (as in this case)”—
he acknowledged that—
“that has been brought into force, planning permission should not normally be granted”.
So far, so good. It goes on to say:
“However, the position is not ‘normal’ in that as NP policy HOU01 is clearly a relevant policy for the supply of housing, and is in conformity with Local Plan policies which are themselves out of date”—
meaning there is no current Neighbourhood Plan—
“only limited weight can be afforded to the policy”.
 6.30 pm
As my residents are saying, it looks as though the Department is sayingthat an application that conflicts with a Neighbourhood Plan would result in refusal of a planning permission, even though a Local Plan is not up to date—that is in the Factsheet—but the Planning Inspectorate is sayingthat a Neighbourhood Plan can be given only limited weight for the very reason that the local plan is out of date.
In conclusion, I ask Ministers to clarify the weight—the actual weight—to be given to made Neighbourhood Plans in the absence of a Local Plan, and also to provide increased weight to a draft plan because of the stage it has reached. Many of these communities that are now in the process of developing plans have become disillusioned, as I said. There are many months still to go before their plans can be finalised, and they want to know whether it is worth continuing.
Let me finally ask if we could have a fairer methodology for calculating a deliverable five-year land supply, because the head of planning strategy at Cheshire East Council has confirmed to me:
“If we could count all our current permissions, the Borough would have a 5-year supply as things stand.”

But things do not stand there because the problem arises from the fact that developers do not build out. They are tardy, and they are deliberately tardy because they simply want to get more and more permissions. They are, as colleagues have said, gaming the system.
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