Motion made, and Question proposed,That this House do now adjourn.— (Mr Foster.)
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I am very grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this debate, and for rescheduling it so promptly after it was postponed because of Prorogation. I hope that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will pass on my thanks to him.
I am grateful to the Minister for being here to respond, although I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), is disappointed not to be in his place today.
I am in favour of localism, but I want the Minister to be aware that, for my constituents in Shipley, localism is only a pipedream and a concept that they do not experience. For them, localism is not working, and I hope that he will reflect on their experience and look at what can be done to ensure that it works for everyone.
The Shipley constituency is served, if that is the right word, by City of Bradford metropolitan district council.
The Bradford district has a rising population, so the council wishes to build more homes. The rising population is actually in the centre of Bradford, but to boost its house building numbers, the council is seeking to build as many houses as possible in the outskirts of the district. The planning permission granted by Bradford council for more than 300 houses in Menston—I want to focus on that—will not do anything at all to alleviate the housing demand in the centre of Bradford. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of people who come to live in Menston are from outside the district.
Bradford council also wishes to regenerate the city centre, which is much needed. However, people who live in places such as Menston in my constituency go to Leeds rather than to Bradford to do their shopping.
This housing numbers game will therefore do nothing to alleviate the housing needs of the district or to regenerate the city centre; yet it will ruin the nature of the villages in my constituency. What is the sense of this approach, and what will the Government do to ensure that councils have plans that meet their strategic objectives and do not just treat the whole district as a large numbers game?
There is clearly far more demand for housing than supply. That is why all political parties are anxious to outbid each other on how many new houses they will build. However, in a situation of supply and demand, there should be just as much focus on demand as on supply. The reason why there is so much demand for housing is largely immigration, particularly the unlimited immigration from the EU caused by our open borders, which means that we cannot control the numbers who come into this country.
The public would much prefer the supply and demand of housing to be solved by controlling demand—by controlling immigration—than by simply concentrating on supply, which will eventually lead to every green field being built on? The only sustainable position is to control demand, and I hope that the Government will reflect on that rather than indulge in an unsustainable house building arms race.
There are many examples in my constituency of Labour-run Bradford council, which only seems to care about its Bradford political heartlands, riding roughshod over the wishes of local residents. For example, the planning application for Sty lane in Micklethwaite has been valiantly opposed by local residents through the Greenhill action group and local Bingley councillors. It is a wholly unsuitable site for development and, eventually, the council’s planning committee rejected the planning application—a decision that has been upheld by the Planning Inspectorate and the Secretary of State. However, the developers keep coming back with new planning applications. According to the developers, that is with the encouragement of council planning officers. I would like to place on record the thanks of my constituents to the Secretary of State for twice rejecting the planning application. I hope he will continue to do so should it ever come back to him.
Planning permission has also been granted by Bradford council for Buck lane in Baildon and Crack lane in Wilsden—both wholly unsuitable sites—in the teeth of opposition from local residents and local councillors.
However, there is no better example of how Bradford council has failed local communities in my constituency than the planning permission that has been granted for more than 300 houses on Bingley road and Derry hill in Menston. I want the Minister to be aware that that raises not just matters of local concern, but serious matters of national concern that the Government need urgently to address.
In discussing the planning matters in Menston, I want to begin by paying tribute to the whole community, who have come together to fight the planning applications and have done all they can to protect their village. There are too many people to mention by name, but Menston action group, the Menston community association, the parish council and the district councillors for the ward have all worked their socks off to prevent these wholly inappropriate developments from taking place. There was even a referendum in Menston, which saw 98.4% of people vote against the development on a turnout of more than 50%. Surely the fact that Bradford council granted permission for the development, despite the opposition from all those community groups and leaders, and the referendum, shows perfectly that localism is not working as it should. The matter has been time-consuming and has brought a considerable financial cost for local residents, who have raised more than £140,000 to take on the council, which has dipped into public funds to, in the words of locals, “legally stifle resident representation”.
The planning applications for Menston have been treated in the most cack-handed way it is possible to imagine by Bradford council. The process has been littered with errors in process. The regulatory committee of the council did not even bother to get off the bus when it visited the site before making its decision. That is no way to deal with planning applications that will have such a huge impact on the local community. I have been left with the impression that, for the council, these planning applications have simply become a battle of wills. It is determined that housing will be built on the sites, irrespective of what evidence comes to light.
That leads me to the main point that I want the Minister to address and take away with him. It relates to the issue of flooding and the lack of experience—certainly at local authority level, but also at other agencies, including the Environment Agency and even Yorkshire Water—in assessing the flood risk in planning applications.
Everyone will remember the communities that were flooded earlier this year, especially in Somerset, and the devastation that was caused. One of the most prominent cases outside Somerset was at Bridge, which is near Canterbury in Kent. The footage of the floods clearly demonstrated the power of water bubbling incessantly up through the ground—something that I have discussed with my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier). When people think of houses being flooded, they think of heavy rain causing rivers to rise and overflow, thereby flooding the land, but I want the Minister to focus on the flooding that arises when water comes up through the ground, as at Bridge, after heavy rainfall, because that is a huge issue and the one on which the lack of expertise is most acute in the assessment of planning applications.
Although I said that there are too many local residents in Menston to whom I would like to pay tribute to name, I must mention Professor Rhodes. He is a distinguished scientist and business man, who has spent a great deal of time and money on commissioning experts to look at the flood risk at the sites. His most recent project used a supercomputer and the best software available to provide simulations of the area to check the viability of the land for development. From that, he has absolute proof that building on the proposed sites is not viable. He fed that information back to Bradford council just before Easter, but has received, in his words, “zero feedback to date”. It is deeply regrettable—indeed, it is a total and utter disgrace—that Bradford council has not taken that independent expert opinion into account.
Indeed, it has not shown any interest in it at all, and I urge the Minister to do what he can, even at this late stage, to make the council reflect on that evidence because otherwise a flawed decision will have been made. Even without such evidence, I have photos of the land that is to be developed which show that it is flooded after heavy rainfall, yet that real-life proof of the problem seems unable to move the stubborn planners on Bradford council.
The groundwater in Menston is due to water-carrying bedrock sandstone layers falling away from Ilkley moor towards Menston, and that type of emergence of groundwater was a major issue in Kent and parts of Somerset. A British Geological Survey map clearly shows that parts of the Shipley constituency have a high susceptibility to groundwater flooding. Indeed, it shows that at Bingley road and Derry hill in Menston, possibly 50% of the site is classified as being at very high risk of flooding. I draw that to the Minister’s attention, and press him to hold a public inquiry into those groundwater emergent issues and the lack of technical ability to interpret those conditions which now affect such a large proportion of the country.
I am not an expert in planning or in groundwater emergence, but I am a firm believer that such issues should be left to experts. Unfortunately, it seems that Bradford council does not hold the same view. A report by JBA Consulting, which is “a leading environmental and engineering consultancy undertaking work to enhance the built and natural environment”, stated that the flood risk assessment done by developers on the sites failed to take into account the following points.
The first is the evidence of unusually high local run-off rates. The run-off rates used in the flood risk assessment were predicted by standard flood estimations, but volume 1 of the Environment Agency’s “Flood Estimation Handbook” clearly states that evidence of high local run-off rates and past flooding should be taken into account when establishing flood flow. Residents have provided evidence of that in the form of video clips and pictures, yet it was not taken into consideration when deciding the application.
The second point concerns diversions of exiting watercourses and flow paths. Diverting the water could lead to flooding downstream, and developing that site creates the possibility that we could endanger someone else’s home. To me that is irresponsible decision making with potentially devastating consequences for other local residents. The developers also did not take into account catchment areas by proposed new swales. Again, the proposed swales would lead to flooding downstream, but it is clear that nobody except local residents is interested in that.
The final point that was not taken into account is that parts of the development site are on a floodplain.
Photographic evidence shows that the high run-off from the hill would cross the lower part of the proposed development site, and in the words of JBA “this part of the development site should be considered to be floodplain and therefore not suitable for development”.
The report suggested that that development site would widen the catchment of the watercourse by 27%, meaning that properties already built downstream would be affected by any significant flooding. If that were not enough, an appraisal report commissioned by Sirius Geoenvironmental stated:
“This site is…located within an area in which groundwater flooding may be a significant issue.”
It went on to say that after inspection it had located a number of seasonal springs that discharged across the site. That was seconded in separate guidelines by the British Geological Survey, which suggested that when high groundwater flooding is indicated, groundwater flooding hazards should be considered “’in all land-use planning decisions.”
Unfortunately, neither of those expert bodies are allowed to comment on any proposed development, which in my opinion makes no sense. Such bodies are specifically established to research those areas in depth, so why would we not take into account their professional, expert opinion?
The Environment Agency recommended that the major flooding event captured in the flood risk assessment of September 2012 be simulated to determine how proposed developments would have coped. If that had been done, the modelling would not have shown the formation of the lake, thus proving that the modelling is fundamentally flawed and that 10 times more water passes across the site. Neither that recommendation nor the flooding reports with the information I have presented today was provided by Bradford council to the Regulatory and Appeals Committee in April 2013. Residents were denied the opportunity to present their expert evidence to the independent inspector, and the public inquiry that followed was closed before it even opened.
Rules stipulate that there is only a small window of opportunity for residents to oppose a planning application.
This clearly leads to an imbalance in representations between developers and objectors. There is frequent input by developers throughout the process, but no further challenge is allowed by local residents. I hope the Minister agrees that the process should be evened out, so that each side in a planning application is given equal time to present their cases.
Let me conclude by reiterating that flooding due to groundwater emergence is now of national importance and needs to be addressed—not just for my constituents in Shipley, but for the thousands who lost their homes in the floods earlier this year and the thousands who believe that homes should be safe and secure from flooding and should certainly not be built on a site in danger of flooding or groundwater emergence. I find it ludicrous that a number of specialist organisations cannot offer an opinion in the planning decision, especially when the issue is as important as flooding in the home.
Will the Minister agree to a full, independent inquiry into the flooding issues that I have raised?
Finally, planning departments have a duty of care when making their decisions, and it is clear that Bradford council is not acting in the best interests of the public it is supposed to be serving. In the words of Sam Jordison and Dan Kieran, in their book “Crap Towns Returns”: “A once fine and confident Victorian City has been brought to its knees by years of incompetent planning and failed developer-driven attempts at ‘regeneration’”.
I hope the Minister takes seriously the points that I have raised. I am interested to know what he can do to help my local residents in Menston, who have fought so valiantly against this completely unjustifiable development and found that the expert evidence they obtained has taken them absolutely nowhere. What will the Government do to ensure that decisions are taken on all the available evidence, so that we do not have such flawed decisions and we prevent these flooding problems from happening in other communities around the country?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Stephen Williams):
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on securing—or, from what he said, re-securing—this debate. I am sure his constituents have been paying attention to the powerful case he made on their behalf. I am not sure what they would have made of his reference to “Crap Towns”. I have picked up that book several times on visits to Waterstones or Foyles in my constituency, but have never been tempted to buy it.
You will be relieved, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I was, that Bristol has never featured in a book with such a title.
This debate underlines the importance of getting up-to-date plans in place as the best way of determining what development is appropriate and where it takes place, and of addressing flooding appropriately through planning. I hope my hon. Friend appreciates that, because Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government have a quasi-judicial role in the planning system, I cannot comment on the particular proposals he mentioned, in Menston, Micklethwaite and Baildon, or on proposals in Bradford’s emerging local plan.
None the less, he raised many important issues that I hope I can address by outlining the Government’s general approach and the reforms that we have made. In all our reforms, this Government have put plans and communities at the heart of the planning system.
The national planning policy framework states at paragraph 150:
“Local Plans are the key to delivering sustainable development that reflects the vision and aspirations of local communities. Planning decisions must be taken in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.”
An up-to-date local plan, prepared through extensive public engagement, sets the framework in which decisions are taken, whether locally by the planning authority or on appeal. All areas should have some form of development plan, but where these plans are old, the policies they contain may become less relevant with the passage of time. I note, as I am sure my hon. Friend does, that Bradford metropolitan district council’s existing development plan dates from 2005, but I welcome its publication of a version of the new local plan for public comment earlier this year. I am sure he is feeding through his concerns on behalf of his constituents to that emerging local plan.
On 6 March, the Department published significantly streamlined planning guidance that reiterated the importance of local and neighbourhood plans. It made it clear that plans must be kept up to date regularly in the light of changing circumstances in a clear and transparent way. Our policy is clear that emerging local and neighbourhood plans may carry some weight in planning decisions before they are formally adopted.
The weight accorded to emerging plans will be determined in respect of the specific circumstances of the case, the plan’s stage of preparation, the extent to which there are unresolved objections and the degree of consistency of that plan with national policy.
National policy is clear that it is the purpose of planning to enable sustainable development, not any development. Localism, to which my hon. Friend referred several times, means choosing how best to meet development needs, not whether to meet them. That is why the NPPF also states: “local planning authorities should use their evidence base to ensure that their Local Plan meets the full, objectively assessed needs for market and affordable housing in the housing market area, as far as is consistent with the policies set out in this Framework.”
I should make it clear that most of the need for new housing, according to information that the Government recognise, arises from all our constituents living longer and from decreasing household size—the number of people who live on their own—rather than migration, which my hon. Friend made out was the case, a case I have heard him make several times. It is the longevity of the whole of the population that is largely driving the need for ever more housing units to be built.
Local authorities should identify and update annually a supply of specific deliverable sites sufficient to provide five years’ worth of housing against their housing requirements. Where they cannot do so, relevant policies should not be considered up to date and the presumption in favour of sustainable development would therefore apply. The presumption in favour of sustainable development means granting planning permission unless the adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits or specific policies in the national framework that indicate that development should be restricted. These specific policies include building on the green belt or in areas where there are designated heritage assets and flooding, which my hon. Friend is particularly concerned about in his constituency.
Therefore, even in the absence of an up-to-date plan, our policy strikes a careful balance between enabling sustainable development, and conserving and enhancing our natural and historic environment.
Before coming on to flooding, I will mention briefly the safeguards on the green belt, as this is relevant to Bradford and the historic environment too, which my hon. Friend mentioned in perhaps a not very flattering way right at the end of his speech. Our planning policy sets out how the Government attach great importance to the green belt. It explains how most development in the green belt is inappropriate and should be granted permission only in very special circumstances, and that green belt boundaries should be reviewed only in exceptional circumstances through the local plan process. National policy equally sets out how planning must take account of the different roles and character of different areas, recognise the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside, and take into account all the benefits of the best and most versatile agricultural land.
In respect of the historic environment, local planning authorities should set out in their local plan a positive strategy for the conservation and enjoyment of the historic environment. In doing so, they should recognise that heritage assets are an irreplaceable resource and that they should conserve them in a manner appropriate to their significance. The Government’s policy is absolutely clear that all development should be supported by appropriate infrastructure, and local authorities have a range of ways to ensure that this occurs. Legislation also prescribes the specific bodies that local authorities must engage with in plan making, which include utilities providers. Compliance with the procedural requirements and consistency with national policy will be thoroughly tested at local plan examination.
My hon. Friend raised issues relating to flooding. He highlighted the importance of ensuring that homes should be safe and secure from all sources of flooding.
There are strict tests in national planning policy to protect people and property from flooding, including from the groundwater flooding that my hon. Friend said was a particular risk identified by the experts he cited. Managing the impact of flooding has been brought into sharp focus by recent weather, and it is quite right that attention should be paid to how councils plan for new development.
Following the floods of last winter, we have worked across Government with councils in some of the worst affected areas to understand the impact of those floods. The evidence that we have seen suggests that our policy is working. My hon. Friend should also be reassured to know that 99% of proposed new residential units that the Environment Agency objected to on flood risk grounds were decided in line with the agency’s advice, where the decisions are known. We have been very clear that we expect councils to follow the strict tests in national policy, and that where these tests are not met, that new development should not be allowed.
The main tests to be followed, in summary, are designed to ensure that if there are better sites in terms of flood risk, or a proposed development cannot be made safe, it should not be permitted. The framework is also very clear that residential development should not be allowed in functional floodplain where flood water has to flow or be stored.
The risk of groundwater flooding—to which my hon. Friend referred—is considered alongside other sources of flooding. National policy requires the local plan to direct development away from areas at risk through the sequential approach. This means that councils must first look to locate development outside areas at risk of all sources of flooding. Where appropriate sites at low risk are not available, and sites at a higher risk need to be considered, a site specific flood risk assessment has to be undertaken to demonstrate that development will be safe and resilient—for instance, through flood defence or raised ground floor levels. That should not increase flood risk elsewhere.
Philip Davies: Briefly, I and my local residents want to know what they can do and what the Government will do. It is all right saying what should happen but when a flawed decision is made by a local authority that does not have the expertise to understand the ramifications of the decision—or which is flagrantly ignoring the expert advice—what can my local residents do to make sure that that flawed decision is not implemented? What are the Government going to do to make sure that local authorities do not pursue those flawed decisions?
Stephen Williams: I was careful to say at the outset that I cannot comment on specific applications to which my hon. Friend has referred, but general advice from Ministers is that where there are concerns about particular planning applications or decisions, he should use all the relevant provisions that are in place. Judicial review may be appropriate, and he is exercising his own important constitutional right on behalf of his constituents to raise the issue in this place and to draw attention to what has happened. If a decision has been made and all the processes have been exhausted, I am not sure whether there are any further measures that can be undertaken.
Philip Davies: My hon. Friend’s advice in terms of judicial review is helpful but, as he will appreciate, that is a very expensive process. What financial support can be given to local communities to pursue a judicial review when such a travesty of justice has taken place?
Stephen Williams: Judicial review is of course a last resort. We want the democratic processes to work, but my hon. Friend is always able to write formally to the Department where Ministers will act in accordance with advice from officials or from the Planning Inspectorate and advise what other appropriate action could be taken. I urge him to do that if he has not already done so. He indicated earlier that the Secretary of State has already been involved to an extent in decisions in the borough, but I urge him to write in with the concerns to which he has drawn attention in this debate.
A local plan is informed by a strategic flood risk assessment, which includes an assessment of risk from all sources of flooding including groundwater. A strategic flood risk assessment will draw on a range of sources of information. I understand that the assessment for Bradford was updated earlier this year and that it considers flooding from all sources, including groundwater. I suggest that my hon. Friend write specifically to me at the Department so that we can have another look at the issues that he has raised.
The decision whether to grant planning permission is a matter for local planning authorities, taking into account their own local plans, strategic and site-specific flood risk assessments as appropriate, advice from the Environment Agency and from leading local flood authorities, and other material considerations. Those bodies have an opportunity to comment on draft local plans and various types of planning applications where there is a risk of flooding. Bradford has now published its local plan, and I suggest to my hon. Friend that while it is at its current emerging stage, he should make his representations loud and clear to ensure that flooding is taken into account appropriately.
Question put and agreed to.