Planning

ike many of my constituents, I am extremely concerned at the recent number of applications for large scale housing developments in our part of Mid Norfolk. In a number of cases the proposed developments are on a scale out of keeping with the rural identity and heritage of our very rural area and I strongly believe we need a more local and organic approach to deliver Vibrant Villages and Thriving Towns, based on smaller pockets of housing in our villages and a greater emphasis on housing for people in local employment rather than long distance commuters.
 
Of course every application needs to be considered by the planning process on the merits of its case, and the needs of the local community, which is why planning decisions are rightly a matter for local councils and democratically elected local councillors, and not something MPs have any jurisdiction over.
 
But I believe the scale and nature of development and infrastructure in an area like ours is of fundamental importance to our economy, community, heritage, identity and way of life - which makes it in my view an issue which MPs cannot simply wash our hands of. Having grown up in a small rural village in this area and started my working life in agriculture, I have long taken a very close interest in rural development and planning policy over the last 25 years and have consistently argued that the old ‘developer-led’ planning model inherited from the 1940s is no longer working. I believe we need a system which is ‘Plan-led’, whereby communities put together a vision for their town covering planning, infrastructure, and other elements including social care and then approach developers to build it, rather than the other way round.
 
Of course we need 'development' - what society or civilisation in history has ever flourished without it? But we need development which is appropriate to the area in question. The answer isn't to dump massive housing estates or industrial scale wind farms on a rural area like ours. We need a more local and organic approach to deliver vibrant villages and thriving towns.
 
This is why, 8 years ago, I set up The Norfolk Way - a not for profit campaign to promote the importance of a vibrant rural economy and enlightened planning policies to promote smaller pockets of local housing for use by local people, small businesses back in the countryside and better broadband, mobile signal and road and rail links. I believe we CAN have both a vibrant local economy and maintain our local heritage.
 
That's why I have gone out of my way over the last five years as an active local MP and prior to that as a local campaigner and founder of The Norfolk Way to fight and successfully stop inappropriate development such as the wind energy substation at Lt Dunham, the development of the Tiffey Valley in Wymondham or the wind farm at Shipdham.
 
It is also why I proudly supported the Localism Bill moving away from Labour’s top-down Regional Strategies (dictating to East Anglia and Norfolk the number of homes that needed to be built – e.g. nearly 80,000 minimum for Norfolk between 2001-2011) and empowering local communities to decide for themselves.
 
The Localism Act empowers local communities, through their elected local Councillors, to have their say by requiring every council to have an adopted Local Plan in place conveying local housing need over the next 20 years. The Government doesn’t set any targets, local Councils do. This is then the development framework against which all applications have to be considered.
 
Local and Neighbourhood Plans should be created in consultation with local Councillors and residents, so that they can shape where development should and should not go. This allows local communities to get the right type of development for their community and sets the framework for how the area will develop over time. Most importantly, it means that communities can have a forward-looking role in the development of their local area. By doing this, aggressive overdevelopment can be prevented as developers who submit planning applications that do not comply with the local plan will have the plans rejected.
 
The removal of the regional tier of planning and regional housing targets means that the responsibility for planning for housing need lies with the local authority (supported by neighbourhood planning) and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) makes clear that local planning authorities must have a clear understanding of the full housing need in their area. Councils need to take account of household and population projections as well as migration and demographic change and must identify and update annually a supply of specific deliverable sites sufficient to provide five years’ worth of housing against their housing requirements (with an additional 5 to 20% buffer depending on past performance of delivery).
 
If an authority fails to plan properly, the opportunity to control development can be lost through appeals determined by planning inspectors. A plan-led approach puts councils in the driving seat and makes it easier to ensure that development is provided at the right scale, in the right places, at the right time and with the necessary facilities and service infrastructure to support it. But a plan-led system does not work without comprehensive plans, so if councils fail to plan, they are at risk of having decisions made for them through appeals.
 
However, the Localism Act and the NPPF do set out additional protections for Councils in this position, by requiring all applications to be economically, socially and environmentally ‘sustainable’ and makes clear that those which do not meet these criteria can be rejected and indeed, a number of applications have been rejected by the Planning Inspector even where a council is in breach of its five year land supply. Objections to unwanted applications should therefore focus on the following criteria which a planning inspector would use to determine whether development is ‘sustainable’:
 
  • Local, strategic, national planning policies and policies in the local plan.
  • Previous appeal decisions and planning inquiry reports as well as principles of case law held through the courts.
  • Factors detrimental to the residential amenity including loss of sunlight, outlook, privacy and overshadowing (though not loss of view as such).
  • Highway issues including traffic numbers, vehicular access and highway safety.
  • Noise or disturbance resulting from use of a site as well as any smells, fumes and handling of hazardous materials.
  • Capacity of physical infrastructure such as drainage or water systems and social facilities such as schools or doctor’s surgeries.
  • Adverse impact on nature conservation interests & biodiversity opportunities. Loss or effect on trees.
  • Effect on listed buildings and conservation areas including the layout and density of building design, visual appearance and finishing materials.
Non-compliance with these measures, are the basis upon which applications, can be (and have been) rejected.
 
Some of my constituents have raised concerns about the NPPF and I know that there are concerns that Paragraph 49 which refers to the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ (which is in place to prevent NIMBYism and ensure that necessary development does go ahead to meet housing need across the UK) may be acting as a loophole which inadvertently allows developers to force through inappropriate development. However, the provisions in the NPPF which require applications to comply with the aforementioned sustainability criteria should prevent this. Where aggressive developers seek to force inappropriate large scale development on an area against the wishes of local people, the Localism Act is supposed to support local communities and plans and I have undertaken to work with other MPs in areas experiencing similar pressures to raise this with the Department for Communities and Local Government.
 
I have also raised this matter with the Planning Minister, Brandon Lewis MP, who has committed to a meeting with our local planning authority, Breckland Council. I am extremely grateful for his support and am committed to working with the local community to support the planning process and work with Breckland Council and leader Cllr Michael Wassell to protect our area from insensitive and inappropriate over development, whilst ensuring that appropriate development which meets the areas needs can proceed.

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