Planning is a hugely contentious issue and one on which my input is frequently sought.
Of course, MPs are deliberately excluded from arbitrating on individual planning applications. The process is fully devolved to local government and we possess neither the right to be consulted nor to vote on them.
But national government has, in recent years, had a lot of say on the overall framework within which planning applications are judged, with a range of measures to allow local communities a greater say, and to shore up special protections for woodlands, areas of outstanding natural beauty, and important sites for biodiversity – among others.
I was pleased to see that, in recent years, several communities in South Wiltshire have drawn up their own Neighbourhood Plans – a process in which Salisbury City Council is currently engaged. The purpose of the plans is to allow local people to define what kind of housing is needed to meet the needs of the community, and where appropriate, to identify their preferred housing sites.
What Localism does not do is allow areas to refuse all development.
I know it is a bitter pill for some people, but the fact is, even in this leafy corner of the country, we need more housing. Rarely does a week go by when local people don’t visit my advice surgery complaining of living in overcrowded accommodation or expressing frustration at the lack of suitable homes in their home city.
Our councillors have had to make tough decisions on enabling new development, including affordable housing, at Fugglestone, Wilton, Longhedge, and elsewhere. To build a country that works for everyone, we have to make sure our housing market works. We have to build more and support a diverse market, but that does not mean we should not continue striving to build better and smarter.
I completely share the frustration of constituents when developers seem reticent to prioritise supporting infrastructure at the same pace as they construct new homes. I understand the exasperation of people facing constant infill development, nibbling away at the green buffers around their communities.
All developers must contribute money to support the communities where they build. Piecemeal developments here and there do yield some public benefits in the form of small numbers of social housing units, or provision of amenities such as footpaths or play equipment, but they are incapable of producing large enough sums to address the serious issues that exercise local people, such as road infrastructure, school places and GP surgery capacity.
Of course, tension between perceived undesirability of small infill developments and need for significantly increased housing provision requires bold thinking. The Government’s recently-launched Garden Communities Programme helps ambitious councils place well-designed homes on large sites with funding for proper master-planning and major infrastructure investment to support them.
Could this constituency support a planned future community of the kind that assuages our housing need for a generation and take the pressure off edge of town and rural greenfield sites once and for all?
This is one of many big strategic questions that my South Wiltshire Economic Task Force has been considering. Of course, such plans are theoretical at present – but it is far from an idle question.
In the meantime, I am pleased the Government’s revised Planning Policy Framework asks more of local councils than ever before to protect the natural environment, setting out the demanding criteria which a local planning authority must meet before concluding that “exceptional circumstances” exist to allow boundaries of the Green Belt to be altered.
The Campaign for Rural England has welcomed reaffirmation of the primacy of Local and Neighbourhood Plan policies in determining planning applications.
The challenge is for planning authority and local communities to communicate effectively and together be flexible enough to defeat unwanted development by seizing the initiative and pro-actively seeking the right development in the most appropriate places.
John Glen MP and City Minister
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