Bill signals the 'end of localism', Labour warns

Opposition and backbench Tory MPs have warned that planning measures contained in the Housing and Planning Bill threaten to undermine local democratic control over development.

Houses of Parliament: second reading of bill has taken place (picture by William Warby, Flickr)
Houses of Parliament: second reading of bill has taken place (picture by William Warby, Flickr)

Speaking during the second reading of the bill in the House of Commons yesterday, a series of MPs voiced concern over planning proposals in the bill, including provisions to give automatic planning permission in principle for new homes.

The bill also contains provisions meaning that councils will only be able to grant permission for certain residential developments if specified requirements relating to low-cost Starter Homes are met, and would give the secretary of state greater powers to intervene in the local plan process.

Shadow planning minister John Healey said that the bill represented an "extraordinary personal and political retreat" for communities secretary Greg Clark. "With a total of 32 new housing and planning powers for the centre, this legislation signals the end of localism," Healey said.

Healey told MPs: "He was Mr Moderate Centre Ground—the Conservative minister with political roots in the old Social Democratic party, and the minister who managed to strike a widely welcomed balance in the National Planning Policy Framework in 2012 between the rights of local residents and the requirement to build more homes. 

"Now he is the minister explaining extreme plans that will all but end new affordable housing for social rent and overturn 25 years of planning law to let housebuilders completely off the hook over new affordable homes and mixed developments."

Helen Hayes, Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood and a former town planner, warned that, through a series of measures including automatic planning permission in principle, "this bill will take power away from our local communities, while also removing vital checks on the quality and sustainability of development".

She said: "Local authorities will be denied the opportunity to ensure that new development meets local need and to negotiate for community facilities and affordable housing. Most importantly, communities will be denied the opportunity to shape their neighbourhoods."

Ruth Cadbury, Labour MP for Brentford and Isleworth, also cautioned that the bill would "remove the voices of local people and undermine local democratic control over development", handing local authority planning powers to the secretary of state and removing "any community engagement".

She said: "Yes, we need new homes, and we need great places to live, to learn and to play, but the 'permission in principle' clause will severely restrict the ability of local authorities, community organisations and the public to comment on, or object to, development on these sites."

Nick Herbert, Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs, urged ministers to "keep faith in localism" and highlighted a "split personality on the part of the government".

"Kindly Dr Jekyll rightly comes to this House to say that regional spatial strategies are to be scrapped, but at night the Treasury doors are unlocked and Mr Hyde emerges," Herbert said. "Kindly Dr Jekyll remains committed to a plan-led system, but Mr Hyde, in this bill, is allowing the secretary of state to take powers to grant planning permission directly for major infrastructure projects and give permission in principle, perhaps not just on brownfield land, but for other sites too. We need clarity about that."

Ranil Jayawardena, Conservative MP for North East Hampshire, cautioned that the bill’s permission in principle measure "must not be used inappropriately to overrule councils on greenfield sites".

Jayawardena said: "We have said that we want to streamline brownfield development, and that is absolutely right - we must prioritise such development - but councils must be listened to when they devise both local and neighbourhood plans."

Meanwhile, Tory London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith - currently MP for Richmond Park - said that he would be tabling an amendment that would ask for a "binding guarantee" that London would see a net gain in affordable housing as a consequence of the bill’s policy to extend the right to buy to housing association properties.

Goldsmith called for a "guarantee that London will see, in addition to the replaced housing association homes, at least two low-cost homes built for every single high-value home sold".

Closing the debate, housing and planning minister Brandon Lewis said that the bill would ensure that "no longer will councils and housebuilders grapple with a planning system that is too slow and does not deliver for local communities".

Lewis said: "We believe in having decisions made locally. The planning system should be driven by local people for local people. That is why we want to facilitate speeding up and making easier further neighbourhood planning."

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