Local councils losing powers to decide what is built in their areas is an “aggressive power grab” by the Government and should be dropped, Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers has told MPs.
The former Northern Ireland and Environment Secretary said that clauses 83 and 84 of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill would allow the Secretary of State to set Development Management policies at a national level. These would override local plans, she told the House of Commons, and worsen backbench concerns about a lack of control at council level.
“This radical change departs from a long-established planning principle that primacy should be given to elected councillors making decisions in accordance with their approved local plan,” she explained during the second reading of the Bill yesterday.
“Management policies of this kind are at the heart of almost all planning decisions, covering matters as crucial as character, tall buildings, affordable housing and protection of open spaces.
“Removing from councils the power to set these policies will severely weaken democratic control of the planning process.
“Centralised control would almost inevitably force councils to approve many applications that they would previously have rejected.
“These clauses amount to an aggressive power grab by the centre, and I hope they will be dropped.”
She said measures needed to be added to the Bill to curb the powers of the Planning Inspectorate. She pointed out that the legislation also has no new protections for greenfield sites and does not reduce or disapply housing targets.
“Excessive housing targets are creating ever greater pressure on elected local councillors to approve applications that amount to overdevelopment. Where they do turn down such proposals, they are at risk of being overturned on appeal,” she explained.
“Targets remain very high, even after the Government’s climbdown on the so-called 'mutant algorithm'. The Bill’s focus on better design does not resolve these issues. Loss of precious green space remains problematic even if what is built on it is well designed. A block of flats is still a block of flats no matter how tastefully it is presented.”
Theresa welcomed several elements of the Bill including digitising the planning system, tackling land banking, and better enforcement of planning controls.
She also welcomed the omission of the growth zone proposals that were in the Planning for the Future White Paper. The zones would have removed local input on what is built in areas designated for growth and Theresa campaigned for them to be dropped.
She added: “I appeal to Ministers to seize the opportunity presented in this Bill to restore the powers of locally elected councillors to determine what is built in their neighbourhood, by scrapping the mandatory housing targets which have been undermining those powers."
In capital the situation is made worse because of high targets imposed on the London boroughs by the Mayor.
“We must stop these targets, and the five-year land supply obligations they impose, from being used as a weapon by predatory developers to inflict overdevelopment on unwilling communities.
“Once they go under the bulldozer, our green fields are lost forever. Once suburban areas such as Chipping Barnet are built over by high-rise blocks of flats, their character is profoundly changed forever.
“Please let us amend and strengthen the Bill so that we clip the wings of an overmighty Planning Inspectorate, restore the primacy of local decision making in planning, and safeguard the places in which our constituents live.”
Speaking afterwards Theresa said: "The Secretary of State has assured Conservative backbench MPs that he wants to try to find consensus and address our concerns over planning.
"Important concessions over the algorithm and growth zones are welcome, but winning those battles does not mean the row is over.
"As currently drafted, the Bill does not fix the serious problems with the planning system which so many Conservative MPs emphasised in the debate yesterday. It is time for ministers to look very closely at their Bill and for them to amend it to recognise that local power and accountability in planning is the best way forward."