On Wednesday (17th July), I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate and once again raised my concerns about the Government’s planning policies. These concerns were echoed by Members from all sides of the House who spoke strongly and powerfully on behalf of their communities.
During the debate I called upon the Planning Minister, Nick Boles MP, to explain why the Government has gone back on their promise to instill localism in the planning system.
A future Labour Government would ensure that local people and councils have greater powers in shaping their high streets. Our approach is a strongly localist one, and we want to work with local communities to deliver growth and development.
My full speech is below and the full debate can be read here:
“The National Planning Policy Framework and Growth and Infrastructure Act have totally undermined the Government’s promise to instil localism in the planning system.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). He serves a beautiful constituency and he spoke passionately and in an informed way on behalf of his constituents. I agree with much of what he said, and I do not know whether that is a greater worry for him or for me—we shall see. I almost feel guilty for intruding on the Minister’s misery, because his own side appears to be doing a very effective job in opposing his policies. Nevertheless, I want to share with him my concerns about the move away from localism and echo some of the points made eloquently by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Everyone spoke strongly and powerfully on behalf of their communities.
As we heard from hon. Members, localism was a key Conservative pledge during the 2010 election, and that was apparent in the early months of the coalition Government. When the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government introduced the Localism Bill in 2010, he claimed to be
“getting out of the way and letting councils and communities run their own affairs”
in order to
“restore civic pride, democratic accountability and economic growth—and build a stronger, fairer Britain.”
Nowhere was the commitment to localism more fervent than in planning policy. The Conservative pre-election green paper, “Open Source Planning”, exemplified the localist approach, but three years, on a gigantic U-turn has taken place. The NPPF and the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013, along with reams of secondary legislation and vicious local authority cuts, have completely torn apart the Government’s promise to instil localism in the planning system. Almost a year and a half on from the introduction of the NPPF, the full consequences of the Government’s approach are starting to become clear.
In March, a Local Government Information Unit research paper concluded that, far from putting people at the centre of planning, the NPPF is at
“risk of undermining localism in planning”.
The latest planning application statistics, released by the Department for Communities and Local Government, show barely any change in the number of approvals or the speed of decision making since the implementation of the NPPF.
Popular planning policies, such as brownfield-first, have been undermined by the NPPF—a point we heard hon. Members make today. Six months on from the introduction of the NPPF, any remaining claim the Secretary of State had to being a localist Secretary of State was exposed by the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013, in which he mentions himself no fewer than 158 times. The 2013 Act, which the Campaign to Protect Rural England states
“marks a dramatic shift away from the Government’s commitment to localism”,
includes powers that allow the Secretary of State, from October, to designate a local planning authority as failing and to strip it of its planning powers, bypassing the local community in deciding planning applications. The Conservative-led Local Government Association said that that
“represents a blow to local democracy, by taking authority away from democratically accountable and locally elected councillors and placing it instead with the Planning Inspectorate”—
a body that has been the object of ridicule for hon. Members today. The LGA goes on to say that the legislation could prove
“counterproductive in terms of stimulating growth, since the removal of local decision making risks seriously denting trust at the local level. This could mean some communities are likely to be increasingly reluctant to accept new development in their areas.”
The Planning Minister however was not done. In case anyone, anywhere, still thought that the Government’s localist promise held any meaning, he turned his attention to stripping local people of their right to have a say on the high streets at the heart of their communities.
The Government’s most recent move—brought in by the back door without any parliamentary debate whatsoever—temporarily allows shops to be converted into payday lenders, bookmakers or fast food shops, without any say for the local community. That is the exact opposite of what the vast majority of the public want. Polling shows that 76% of people would support the Government giving new powers to local councils to help them shape the high street in line with the wishes of the community. Can the Minister explain how his policy, which is the opposite of that, does not remove powers from local people?
We [Labour] are arguing very strongly that local people now have little say in what happens to their high streets. Is the Minister still arguing that local authorities should use article 4 directions to get round his new policy?
In May this year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) pledged that a future Labour Government would ensure that local people and councils have greater powers to stop the proliferation of certain types of unwanted shops or premises on their high streets, thereby showing that Labour is the party of true localism. That is the opposite of what we are now seeing under this Government, who are taking powers away from local communities, and the same is happening with neighbourhood planning. We want to build on neighbourhood planning, integrating it more clearly into the planning system and building on the success of places such as Thame in Oxfordshire, where 775 new homes have been planned for. We would like to see such success mirrored elsewhere. If we are to deliver the number of houses that we so desperately need, it is important that we work strongly with communities to gain their consent.
Our approach is a strongly localist one. We want to work with local communities to deliver growth and development, and the Minister could do worse than listen to his colleagues this morning.”