An e-briefing on development from John Howell, April 2017

Our Planning System is Plan led and Issues around planning are often raised with me especially over development and infrastructure. In this briefing I will explain some of the key questions being raised and what I have been doing to help improve the planning system in Parliament.

There is little doubt that we need more housing but the way in which development is happening in relation to our towns and villages is of concern. I have personally pledged to push for infrastructure in line with development and am pleased to see that in the latest draft Local Plan in South Oxfordshire the council makes this a key policy area. There is also clear evidence that where a community has a Neighbourhood Development Plan they are more involved with the planning system.

I have been actively encouraging every community to develop a Neighbourhood Plan either on its own or, where small communities are concerned and geography is appropriate, to work with neighbouring communities. Once adopted a Neighbourhood Development Plan (NDP) becomes part of the suite of Planning Policy documents against which applications are determined and has the same force of law as the Local Plan. They give communities the opportunity to play a much more proactive part in the process. It is, of course, important to note that a NDP is not a trump card and it must work together with the web of other Plans – local and national. What it does not do is give rights to individual communities to make plans and take planning decisions in isolation. It is a shared responsibility between district and community.

As I helped develop Neighbourhood Planning, and was instrumental in helping to change planning regulations to give them further help, I am pleased to see them coming to fruition and giving communities a real say in the system. This was the intention. There are now some 2000 across the country. Some say that they are a lot of work but it is important to note that they do not have to be all embracing ‘mini local plans’. The first NDP in the country had just two policies which addresses issues not contained in the district Local Plan. The second in the country was the Thame NDP which in contrast is a very comprehensive document. It is all about what is needed in each locality. As we heard at the conference I held with SODC and parish councils, I am delighted that SODC is giving NDPs full support and I remain happy to speak to communities wishing to embark on the process. My message is – if you have not already started now is not too soon.

A NDP is all the more important now that SODC has ‘lost’ its five year land supply figure – a measure of housing deliverability. Without this it is easier for developers to get applications through and the council has less control over where development goes. More recently, I helped change the regulations to ensure that where a District Council loses its five year land supply, a community with a Neighbourhood Plan which allocates sites for development will only have to operate under a three year land supply figure rather than five. SODC has a three year land supply and a NDP would therefore carry full weight.

Judgement made in the High Court clearly shows Neighbourhood Plans anyway carried very significant amounts of weight in the planning system even where the district council had lost its five year land supply. This means that a Neighbourhood Plan would have had the strongest of influences in helping to decide on planning applications.

It is good news that over 30 communities in South Oxfordshire and Cherwell are now preparing a NDP. In Thame and Woodcote we have examples of ‘front runners’ – those developed early in the process and helping the learning. Both Thame and Woodcote are now benefiting from a much closer working relationship with the district council planning department in reviewing applications as they are submitted. In communities such as Henley they are now beginning to see this improved relationship develop and to share in the decision making process.

Central and Local Government roles
Planning is and should be a local matter. Gone are the days when housing numbers were set nationally. Government provides guidance for planning authorities and it is the District Council that knows better than anyone sat in Whitehall what is needed in any village across the county.

The task of an MP in central government is to make the planning system fair within the law. This I have been doing as I set out on my web-site at this link. The changes I am currently seeking to introduce would have a profound effect on our communities in giving them more security over the future and I am pleased that some are being introduced as part of the Neighbourhood Planning Bill and some others in the Housing White Paper.

There is some belief that the Government introduced a law allowing developers to go to appeal or that it has made it impossible for councils to appeal decisions. This is a false rumour and if you look at the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 you will see there the same right of appeal for the applicant against a decision of a local authority to refuse a planning application. The ability to appeal a decision, therefore, goes back to at least 1990. In addition, Councils are still fully able to challenge appeals and at a recent meeting with Parish Councils I have obtained a promise from John Cotton, the Leader of SODC, that he will always challenge appeals where there is a good legal case.

A question has been raised as to whether there could be a moratorium on planning decisions on large developments until there is a Local Plan in place. I think this would be difficult to achieve but would be willing to raise this with Government and in Parliament.

Infrastructure
I have long said that the cumulative effect of applications and permissions already given should be looked at. The principle which currently applies of looking at ‘each application in its own right’ has its limitations when looking at large developments. It leaves no room for seeing the implications on infrastructure of all types. NDPs do go some way in helping with this but often the issues are wider. I have pledged to push for infrastructure in line with development and have done just that since. I have asked the National Infrastructure Commission to meet with me with a view to looking at Oxfordshire as a project. Usually the Commission only looks at national infrastructure.

SODC Local Plan Consultation
Currently South Oxfordshire District Council has a consultation open on its Local Plan to 2033. I was able to visit the last of their ‘drop in’ events in Henley at the weekend and had the opportunity to discuss the Plan with planning officers. If you missed these events copies of the exhibition boards can be seen on the SODC website. The consultation is open until 17th May and I would encourage everyone to take a look and respond.

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