Dr Luke Evans is a member of the Health Select Committee, and is MP for Bosworth.
It’s strange to think that after three months of talking, thinking, even dreaming Coronavirus that there is a world outside of it that all of us long to return to. Whether it’s going for an evening stroll to the pub, or getting back to the daily routine of politics, most of us are hoping for normality to return sooner rather than later.
The funny thing is that, in many respects, the world has been going on normally, albeit in a virtual way rather than face to face, without skipping a beat. This whole time that we have been locked down, planning applications have been made, consulted on and determined; and in some cases building work has even started.
The Government has been keen to deliver on its pledge to continue house building, and this is critical for those looking to get onto the housing ladder and those who are looking to downsize.
Being elected into a rural seat in which a Liberal Democrat Borough Council has only the loosest grip on planning policy means that the largest part of my non-COVID postbag from constituents is about a topic which an MP arguably has the most negligible impact over.
Bosworth is a desirable place to live, well situated, beautiful countryside and well connected, so it is no wonder that with no five year housing supply opportunistic house builders are putting new applications in. The result is a piecemeal approach to significant development across my constituency, but I know from conversations with colleagues that by no means is my patch unique.
The nature of our democracy means that its right that local councillors decide upon planning applications – I am at pains to explain that to those who write to me – but as normality returns it’s very clear that planning is becoming an increasingly pressing issue once more.
Of course that doesn’t mean we MPs should ignore planning and simply wash our hands of it, on the contrary it is our role to steer the national framework as we do have a pivotal role to play in the planning law that guides them.
I’ve been taking some time to think how we can influence that law during lockdown and make planning even more accountable and predictable too.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the ideas that I have been having.
Parish councils are often reluctant to write neighbourhood plans. They look at the amount of work involved (and their scant and usually voluntary resources) and think to themselves ‘what’s the point?’ They know they have multiple hurdles to jump and even when they do manage to clear them they know that their views can be easily overturned by the lack of a local plan or five year housing supply.
I want to see a planning system where a neighbourhood plan really means something, where they are not compromised by the failings of the planning authority, where localism is put into practice rather than being an easy to ignore box to tick.
Ordinary people are not stupid: they know there is a need for new housing. So here’s a suggestion. Why don’t we make the neighbourhood planning system more streamlined, and even include a moratorium on new applications whilst it is being determined, on the basis that communities will be able to say where they want development to take place, and not simply stop it?
I think that’s a deal which most communities would jump at. And if they don’t? Well, the local people would have spoken. That would be real localism.
I hear many a complaint too about the practices of land banking. We need more houses, in the right places, now and not planning applications lying dormant whilst developers wait for a better price per unit. Surely a use it or lose it plan would help to spur on development?
So rather than turning a blind eye, why not start charging developers council tax not from completion but from a specified date in their planning consent? That is one of a myriad of ways to see the reduction in land banking. Might we see much needed homes being constructed that little bit faster?
And whilst we are on the subject of developers starting to move a little quicker, wouldn’t it be great to see them paying their Section 106 monies on time and without appealing the level of them?
Developer contributions are there to improve local infrastructure and facilities. We know they are needed when a planning application is given consent, they don’t go away just because a developer goes to appeal.
I entered Parliament straight from a career, and so don’t have the experience of some who were first councillors, and who understand the idiosyncrasies of planning from the ground up. I very much admire the work councillors do and sympathise with the frustrations that they face, but I can also look at the planning system that we do have with a fresh eye.
It’s a planning system which has its strengths but also has major flaws, and one which ordinary people are having less and less faith in.
Planning is about local democracy, and local democracy about true localism. Isn’t it time localism becomes more than a box to tick?