PRESS RELEASE FROM THE RT HON PETER LILLEY MP
Monday June 22nd 2009
LILLEY TAKES HOUSING BATTLE TO WESTMINSTER
Peter Lilley, MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, has taken his fight against Luton’s plans to build thousands of houses on Green Belt land in North Hertfordshire to Parliament.
He asked members of the House of Commons committee considering the Local Government, Economic Development and Construction Bill to close a loophole in the law that allowed Luton and South Bedfordshire to propose meeting their housing targets by building outside their own area.
Mr Lilley proposed that the law should explicitly state that no local authority could seek to meet their housing targets by applying for planning permission in the area of another local authority.
He said: “The spirit of this Bill is to encourage local democracy. That can only flourish if local representatives are accountable to those whose interests they serve and affect.
“If they are serving one lot of residents by affecting those in another area who are unable to vote either for or against them, that is the antithesis of democracy. You cannot have democracy without accountability.
“The elected representatives of Luton and South Bedfordshire should consider proposals that affect their own areas before they even dream of predatory development elsewhere.
Following the debate, Peter said “As the only objection raised against my clause in the committee was that it did not allow for the case where two local authorities might agree that one could build in the other authority’s area I withdrew the clause and have since tabled a revised clause to be considered when the Bill returns to the House of Commons.
“Whether or not this will succeed will depend on whether the government for some as yet unstated reason decides to whip its Members against the new clause.”
* Attached is Peter Lilley’s contribution to the committee on this issue
Further information from John Allen
New Clause 17
‘No local authority which has a responsibility to plan for building a target number of homes may seek to meet its target by applying for planning permission in the area of another local authority.’.-(Mr. Lilley.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The Committee will know that I have a specific constituency interest that causes me to table this new clause. I have been remiss in not drawing attention to an entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. I am a director of a company that supplies software and services to local government, among other things. As far as I am aware, nothing I have said and nothing I will say has any bearing on its business or was influenced by it. For the sake of propriety, I should put it on the record that I am a director of that company.
My constituency interest is a specific issue that I believe has general implications for every member of the Committee and every Member of the House of Commons, and that is highly relevant to the desirable aims of the Bill. Let me outline the specific case. The Milton Keynes and south midlands spatial strategy covers a region, as its name suggests, from Milton Keynes down to Luton and Bedfordshire, but not Hertfordshire. A consultation was carried out on that spatial strategy throughout the area of the south midlands, but not in Hertfordshire. No one in Hertfordshire was consulted.
After agreement on that was reached, preferred options were drawn up for building homes, all of them initially within the area of the south midlands, Luton and south Bedfordshire, including a number of locations west of Luton. None of the initial preferred options was in Hertfordshire. Of course, once indications of the likely preferred options had been made public, local opposition arose in the west and the south of Luton.
Councillors looked around for something else to do that would avoid opposition. They discovered a loophole in the law, which would enable them to propose a preferred option not in their own spatial area, but in
north Hertfordshire-in Lilley Bottom, which has caused some amusement to the Committee already. It is a particularly beautiful area of my constituency.
The residents of Luton and south Bedfordshire were consulted about that, but not those of Hertfordshire until there were protests, after which some mock consultation was held in my area. There were even discussions between Luton borough council, the council in south Bedfordshire, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the developer, Bloor Homes, about how they would go about building in my constituency, but with no representation from north Hertfordshire or Hertfordshire county council at that meeting. Then, a preferred options summary document was published.
I am grateful to a constituent of mine, Mr. Christopher Whetnall, who has done a thorough analysis of the matter. He discovered that in that document assertions were repeatedly made such as that the
“strategic urban extension to the east of the main conurbation”-
the extension of Luton into north Hertfordshire-
“will also be planned for… by North Hertfordshire District Council.”
But North Hertfordshire district council denies that absolutely-it is completely opposed to the proposal and has no intention to plan for it. However, in several places in the document issued by Luton and south Bedfordshire, it is stated that it is intending to do so.
The document drawn up for the spatial strategy looks at designating areas as green belts and areas of local natural beauty and specific landscape value, but only in their areas. When a map was published of where it was intended to build, including areas of north Hertfordshire, it was not shown as green belt, let alone an area of great local natural beauty. The councillors’ own consultants said critically:
“Given the high sensitivity of this landscape”-
the landscape in Lilley Bottom-
“development is not recommended.”
They none the less ploughed ahead because they were proposing to build in an area where it does not matter what the local residents think, as they are not able to vote for or against the councillors in Luton or south Bedfordshire.
Imagine the sense of outrage and incomprehension among my constituents that that is remotely possible. Indeed, I invite hon. Members to imagine that sense if such a proposal were to affect their constituencies, with a neighbouring council proposing to build in their area without proper consultation, any representation or any responsibility for the feelings of those most directly affected.
That raises general issues. There is manifestly a loophole in the law. Parliament did not sit around and think, “We should allow one council to propose meeting its housing targets by building in the area of another.” We did not rule it out simply because we did not think it would ever happen. It is a loophole that needs to be closed. It is also wholly contrary to the spirit of the Bill.
I have not welcomed large chunks of the Bill, but the spirit of it-to encourage local democracy-is one that can flourish only if the local representatives are accountable to those whose interests they serve and affect. If they
are serving one lot of residents by affecting those in another area who are unable to vote for or against them, that is the antithesis of democracy-one cannot have democracy without accountability. I therefore urge members of the Committee to consider the proposal favourably. It would simply close the loophole that exists unintentionally in the planning laws before it affects their constituencies.
If hon. Members fail to close the loophole and the same thing happens to them, they will rue the day. When I raised the matter on Second Reading, it was clear that other councils were beginning to get wind of it and the same sort of thing was being mooted, considered or pursued actively in other areas of the country.
A counter-argument was put by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins). Needless to say, his constituency does not abut mine. Mine abuts Luton, South. He said that it was impossible to build in the Luton area and meet its target, and that building should be allowed elsewhere. The housing targets set for each area are a reflection not only of the needs of the residents, but of the scope for building in the area. If that is not the case, it ought to be.
A council should be set only a target that is realistic, given the amount of unbuilt area or scope for infill development. It is clear that housing could have been built in the area because sites within it were identified initially that could take the required number of houses to be built. Indeed, there is a further site south-west of Luton where a developer has a plan to build. He has protested that he cannot get proper consideration by Luton and south Bedfordshire because they want go ahead and build in Hertfordshire, and not even consider what he is proposing.
Well, I am not proposing the reverse of what Luton is doing to me and saying that it is the right area. I am not an elected representative for Luton or south Bedfordshire. I leave it to them to decide the least bad areas in their districts in which to build houses, but they certainly ought to consider proposals that affect their own areas before they even dream of predatory development in other council areas.
The second argument put by the hon. Member for Luton, North is that Luton is an urban area that ought to be allowed to expand, and that there were economies of scale so that it should have planning power over the peripheral areas. That might be the case, but it does not have such responsibility. Its boundaries have not been increased. If it wants to bring about a change in its boundaries, it should seek to do so through whatever procedures exist for changing local government boundaries. It should not try to use a loophole in the law to get round this. So far, Parliament has not decided that Luton ought to be an area of massive expansion and given free rein and jurisdiction over a wider area than it already has responsibility for.
The third argument is that matters still depend on the planning authorities. Luton and its chosen developers can make an application to build many thousands of houses in Lilley Bottom, but that will have to be considered by the planning authority, which is North Hertfordshire district council. It has been somewhat constrained in what it can say for the very reasons that we discussed in the debate on the previous clause, but it has made matters absolutely clear. I predict that it will turn the application down. If Luton chooses to persist, the
matter will go to a planning inquiry and a planning inspector will be faced with something that is designated by a local authority that has some presumption in its favour-not, admittedly, the local authority in which the location resides, but it seems unfair that that should be the case.
Whereas I by no means think that the outcome is a foregone conclusion, I shall fight tooth and nail during the initial planning process in north Hertfordshire, and if it goes to a planning inquiry, I shall say that that is absolutely the wrong area in which to build extra houses. Even if the target for house building in north Hertfordshire were to be raised and some of the target from Luton transferred to north Hertfordshire, we would not build there because it is a particularly beautiful area of green belt. It provides an area that is of great benefit to the residents of Luton and Hitchin, which they value. One thing that the residents of Hitchin and Luton have in common is that they want to remain separate from each other.
I urge the Minister to look at the new clause positively. I have raised this issue in our debates on a number of clauses, where appropriate, but so far no hon. Member has sought to defend the loophole. If it is not closed, the process may proliferate nationwide. It is clearly absurd that, in extremis, north Hertfordshire could meet its housing target by proposing to build in Northumberland. I frequently get letters from my constituents asking, “Why are we building in Hertfordshire, which is already the most densely populated county in the country, when we should be building in less populated areas in the north?” The same could apply to Cornwall. The hon. Members for North Cornwall and for Falmouth and Camborne will be relieved to know that my constituents do not mention Cornwall, but it might occur to them.
Surely, we will end up with anarchy. One thing that the Bill seeks to do is to promote orderly co-operation between councils, rather than conflict and disputes. The new clause would prevent such conflict and dispute by removing the loophole. I hope that the Minister will reflect the undoubted will of the whole Committee that the loophole should be closed. If there are any legal uncertainties about it, we can always revise it on Report.
Mr. Raynsford: I shall be brief, but I shall disappoint the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden by saying that I hope that the Minister will not accept the new clause, which is misconceived and inappropriate.
I shall not talk about the individual circumstances in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and I have no reason to dispute his concern about them, but I note the tone of hostility to housing development that one has grown accustomed to hearing from many Conservative quarters. I reflect only on the fact that we have a serious housing shortage and that if we are not serious about providing new housing to meet people’s needs, we will continue to face serious problems of homelessness and people living in squalid conditions, which is not acceptable in a modern society.
I object to the new clause because it is prescriptive and because it would prohibit the very co-operation between local authorities that the right hon. Gentleman says he wants to encourage. It is clearly inappropriate to prevent one local authority, with the agreement of another, from doing a housing development that crosses
the border between the two. I represent a constituency in a fairly densely occupied urban area where we have housing developments that cross borders. Indeed, people are sometimes confused as to whether they are renting from Lewisham or Greenwich council. It would be absurd to say that there could not be an agreement whereby a development done by one of those councils impinged in some way on the other’s area.
I am also conscious of the efforts that have been made to help people to move to other areas through new towns and other provision in seaside locations to which elderly people can retire. Prohibiting such provision would be completely inappropriate. Of course, we want co-operation.
Mr. Lilley: The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. If he will support my new clause now, I will support further modification on Report saying, “Except by agreement of the councils concerned.”
Mr. Raynsford: If the right hon. Gentleman tables such an amendment on Report, I will consider it a lot more sympathetically, but I could not possibly support the new clause now because I regard it as inappropriate for the reasons I have explained.
Dan Rogerson: I have a great deal of sympathy for what the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden says about his constituents. They must be mystified that such a planning process can be under way for the area where they live, and that decisions are being taken over well-established borders. That is a real problem. I accept the point that the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich made, because, as we have discussed, local authorities should be able to come together and present solutions, so perhaps the measure is not quite right. We are certainly sympathetic to the views expressed by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, and I am sure that his constituents would expect better from the planning process.
I spent several years living in the borough of Bedford-not quite Luton-and my wife taught very close to Hitchin in a place called Stotfold, just over the border in Bedfordshire. I know the area quite well and I am sure that residents have more in common than the right hon. Gentleman implied, even in Hertfordshire. I am sure, too, that they get on far better than was suggested. Issues such as this do not help the process, so if we can resolve it in some way, all to the good.
Ms Winterton: I want to start by saying that it is difficult to comment on the proposals that the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden referred to, because I understand that the respective local authorities are still at the stage of making proposals that have yet to be tested by inspectors. I support all the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, and I want to reassure the right hon. Gentleman that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth said on Second Reading, it is not the loophole that he talks about.
Local authorities have no powers to require another local authority to accommodate housing numbers that have been allocated to them. As I have said, our policy is that local authorities should accommodate the level of housing identified for their area in the regional strategy. We support councils working together, even to the extent of preparing joint plans and initiatives, so that they decide between them how best to accommodate their respective housing needs across a sub-regional area. But they cannot simply require another local authority to accommodate the numbers of houses that have been allocated to them. Where local authorities disagree, there is a role for an independent inspector to make a decision on their proposals, based on the evidence available and policy set out in the regional strategy and by the Government. The proposed new clause is unnecessary and I urge the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.
Mr. Lilley: The point is not that I am saying one council can “require” another. Councils can make an application-they should not be allowed to-for planning and that will then have their endorsement when it goes to an inspector. What I would like is an assurance that if they did go ahead with any such proposal, and it was granted, the houses that they built in another district area would not count towards their target, which has been set for their area. The Minister did not make that clear.
Ms Winterton: As I have said, the point of the amendment would, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said, prevent authorities joining together, but they cannot simply require another authority to build in their area. I suggest I look at the record relating to the question that the right hon. Gentleman asked and I will write to him to clarify the position.
Mr. Lilley: Can I not bring it back on Report now?
The Chairman: Voting on a new clause and an amendment in Committee does not prevent the same clause or amendment being re-tabled on Report. But when Mr. Speaker selects amendments on Report, the amount of time given to the clause or the amendment in Committee will be taken into account. For example, if the Committee had had quite a substantial debate on an amendment or a new clause, that would be taken into account by Mr. Speaker, who might judge that sufficient debate had been had on that particular section of the Bill. Voting on it now is not an absolute bar to raising the new clause on Report, but it may be advantageous not to vote now as it could allow more time for it on Report. It is entirely up to the hon. Gentleman. That is not particularly good guidance, but this is an awkward situation.
Mr. Lilley: It is extremely valuable guidance. After 25 years in the House, it is the first time that I have proposed a new clause in Committee, other than a Government new clause. I shall therefore follow your advice, Mr. Illsley, and not press the new clause to a vote. I shall table a similar clause on Report, but one that meets the objections that have been expressed today. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.