Shottery slap in the face for Stratford people

Thursday 08 November 2012 Updated: 14/11 09:09

THE GREEN light for the controversial Shottery development has shattered the belief of Stratford people in the Government's commitment to localism, MP Nadhim Zahawi told the House of Commons this week.

The Stratford MP was speaking at an adjournment debate he had successfully called on Wednesday evening (November 7), which gave him an opportunity to call for an explanation from the Department for Communities and Local Government, as to why the 800-home development in Shottery had been given the go-ahead despite almost unanimous opposition from local people.

But if Mr Zahawi was expecting answers he was disappointed as planning minister Nick Boles, speaking on behalf of Secretary of State Eric Pickles, said he could not comment on details of the decision while it was open to a possible legal challenge.

Mr Zahawi however made his and fellow constituents' feelings clear over the Shottery decision, questioning the Government's commitment to localism, which is meant to give more power to local people to make decisions on local matters.

Mr Zahawi said: "Localism is important because the closer the decision is to the people whom it affects, the better it will be.

"In a single stroke, the decision shattered my constituents’ belief in the Government’s commitment to localism.

"It grants permission for a village-sized development to be welded to the edge of this important, historic town and to build a new link road directly behind the cottage in which William Shakespeare’s wife grew up, which is a significant tourist attraction. Anne Hathaway’s house is a grade I listed building, it has a registered listed park and garden, and is is an integral part of the Shakespeare story, which itself is an integral part of the story of our island, our culture and our language.

"This decision will create a permanent scar on the landscape, breach a historic town’s boundary and begin an urban sprawl into what are currently open fields.

"In the planning inspector’s own words, there will be “harm” to Anne Hathaway’s cottage and, moreover, “a degree of adverse effect on tourist numbers cannot be ruled out.”

Stratford District Council are set to consider next Tuesday (November 13) whether to appeal against the decision.

And a debate on Stratford district's planning policy is being held on November 19.

The Liberal Democrats demanded an Extraordinary Meeting of Stratford District Council to discuss on-going delays in the drawing up of the district's Core Strategy - guidelines for long term planning policy - which was originally expected in October 2009.

Lib-Dems want to discuss concerns including the delay to the Core Strategy, and are also concerned the Shottery verdict casts major doubts over the house building targets currently included in the draft Core Strategy, prompting fears it could lead to more sites becoming the target of developers.

Coun Chris Saint, leader of the Tory-controlled district council, last week issued a lengthy statement on the Core Strategy. He told The Observer it was vital the agreed Core Strategy had "integrity" and he was not prepared to compromise.

The full transcript of Mr Zahawi's and Mr Boles' speech in the House of Commons.

Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon, Conservative)

I am most grateful to the House for granting this debate. A commitment to localism was at the heart of the Conservative campaign in 2010, so much so that the Conservative party manifesto was entitled “Invitation to Join the Government of Britain”. Our meaning was clear: in government, Conservatives would trust local people to make decisions about the things that mattered in their communities.

In the manifesto section on planning, we promised specifically that“people in each neighbourhood will be able to” choose “what kind of development they want”; that “new housing estates, will have to be designed through a collaborative process”; and that planning inspectors with no stake in the decision will no longer be able to rewrite local plans. Like many of my colleagues, I stood in village hall after village hall and sold that vision of a better politics.

Why is localism important? It is important because the closer the decision is to the people whom it affects, the better it will be. Why? That is because of accountability. If I or my councillors make a decision, we know we can be held accountable, not only at the ballot box but in the street. My constituents will see me at surgeries and the supermarket, or perhaps enjoying a glass of orange juice in one of Stratford’s very fine public houses. If they do not like a decision, they can stop me and tell me why. Therein lies the strength of British democracy. We came into government because we wanted to undo the damage wrought by arbitrary target setting, anonymous officialdom and centralised control. We came into government to do away with the dictatorship of the clipboard-wielding jobsworth, yet time and again Members of the House and the people of this country have been let down by localism.

We had just such a decision last week in my constituency—the Secretary of State’s decision to endorse an inspector’s report on 24 October approving 800 new units on greenfield land on the edge of the town of Stratford-upon-Avon. In a single stroke, the decision shattered my constituents’ belief in the Government’s commitment to localism. It grants permission for a village-sized development to be welded to the edge of this important, historic town and to build a new link road directly behind the cottage in which William Shakespeare’s wife grew up, which is a significant tourist attraction. Anne Hathaway’s house is a grade I listed building, it has a registered listed park and garden, and is the location of Shakespeare’s second-best bed, an item he famously bequeathed to his wife in his will. History is silent, of course, on who got the best bed. Anne Hathaway’s cottage is an integral part of the Shakespeare story, which itself is an integral part of the story of our island, our culture and our language. It is no less a piece of this country’s heritage than “The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples” of this nation’s capital. Anne Hathaway’s cottage has survived the English Reformation, the civil war, the industrial revolution and even 13 years of Labour. The question for my constituents is whether it will survive the careless stroke of a planning inspector’s pen.

This is not about a modest conservatory extension to Anne Hathaway’s cottage. It is a decision that will create a permanent scar on the landscape, breach a historic town’s boundary and begin an urban sprawl into what are currently open fields. In the planning inspector’s own words, there will be “harm” to Anne Hathaway’s cottage and, moreover, “a degree of adverse effect on tourist numbers cannot be ruled out.”

Some, such as my hon. Friend the Minister, might say that opposition to this development is just nimbyism, but they would be plain wrong. Stratford district council is doing the right thing. It knows that the area needs more housing. It has already planned for an increase of 15.6% in housing numbers. That is 500 more homes than the regional spatial strategy demanded and makes a total figure of 8,000 new homes in a relatively small district. What it had not planned for, however, is 10% of the 8,000 total being placed in one wholly unsuitable location.

In effect, this decision was a test case—the old system of centrally imposed targets and top-down decision making versus bottom-up planning and locally determined, evidence-based housing targets. There are no prizes for guessing on which side a planning inspector, an individual whose very existence relies on the top-down approach, came down. It is, however, deeply disappointing that a Secretary of State who has been so keen on promoting localism chose simply to rubber-stamp this decision and accept its flawed logic. Despite the inspector’s view, if we subscribe to localism there is no question about a five-year land supply in the district. There has never been any suggestion that this land, adjacent to a historic property and on the special landscape of Bordon hill, would ever be considered acceptable for development.

I am sure that my Hon. Friend the Minister will tell me that as the council’s local plan review contains the land west of Shottery, it has, as the inspector put it, “accepted that the harm created was acceptable”.

However, if that is the case then the Minister, like the inspector has failed to recognise that the land was only included as a result of a top-down imposition. The location in question was introduced by a planning inspector in 2005, following an examination of the local plan review. When the council voted to reject its inclusion it was told by the inspectorate that it would have no adopted plan unless it was included. So in 2005 an inspector overrode the wishes of elected members and rewrote the local plan. In 2010, we promised that inspectors would no longer have that power, but two years later this Government used the land’s inclusion by a bureaucrat, against the wishes of elected members seven years ago, to override a locally determined decision that was in line with locally determined emerging policy.

Thanks to this decision, Stratford district has again found that an inspector has effectively rewritten its local plan, imposing an increased housing target that is over and above that defined in both the local plan review and the draft core strategy. According to the inspector, the council’s housing target must now be between 11,000 and 12,000 houses, a 25% increase over current numbers. Thanks to the continued power of an unelected inspector’s recommendation, the council’s chance of having that figure overturned, regardless of its evidence base, is slim, and it is now having to re-do much of its core strategy weeks before it was due to be submitted. This is not the localism that we were promised.

Again, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will have an answer. He no doubt buys into the inspector’s view that there is no evidence for the council’s 8,000 figure, but the very same evidence report that the inspector references for the arbitrary 11,000 to 12,000 figure also provided evidence for the 8,000 figure, stating that a figure in this range has “the least environmental impact” and—importantly—is “the option likely to do the most to preserve the character of the District.” That character is relied on heavily for the tourism trade on which Stratford so depends.

The alternatives that the council’s independent consultants put forward were described in their report as scenarios in which “the environmental impact is high” or “the impact on the district’s character is hard to judge”. However, that would certainly be “higher” than if the council adopted a target in the lower 8,000 range.

The inspector wrongly declared that officers had recommended a figure of between 11,000 and 12,000, but that only happened in the dreams of the developers, not in real life. Even if it had, of what importance would it be? It should be elected representatives who make policy decisions, not unelected officials. Otherwise, we might as well do away with councillors, and, by the same thinking, Secretaries of State, in favour of letting the bureaucracy at the centre run the country. That is the central issue here. Either we believe in localism and trust the people to make the right decision, or we do not.

That is not to say that localism is easy. Not every local plan will succeed. Some will undoubtedly fail, but central Government cannot have it both ways. Either we believe in the capacity of local people to make good decisions about the future of their communities, or we admit that localism was just a vote-winning slogan and that people cannot be trusted. I believe, however, that we are quick learners. If one area is making decisions that benefit it significantly more, then similar decisions elsewhere will not be far behind. That is basic human nature and that is why localism, given a chance, will work.

I am extremely grateful that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has stayed to listen to my speech, and I am hopeful that the planning Minister will stand up and revoke his decision and allow the people of Stratford to have their choice. If he does not, however, I would like him to answer some specific questions. When will the west midlands regional spatial strategy be revoked? How does he defend his use of an outdated local plan review to justify housing being approved on a site when elected members expressly voted against the site in question, only to be told by an inspector rewriting their local plan that it must be included? When was the decision on Shottery made? If it was made in late October, how can this decision, which rewrites the housing numbers, not be premature in the face of a local plan that was to be submitted less than a month later? If it was made earlier, when the core strategy was, in the words of the inspector, “at a relatively early stage” rather than weeks away from submission, why was it not announced then?

How can the Secretary of State defend the newly imposed figure of 11,000 to 12,000 houses when there is, in the council’s view, no more evidence base provided for that figure than the 8,000 figure put forward by the council? How can the Minister defend an inspector effectively rewriting a local plan when we expressly promised that that would no longer be the case? Finally, what is his answer to those who say that this kind of decision sets a precedent for the next tranche of localism, namely police and crime commissioners, and suggests that if the centre deems fit, it will simply overrule any local decision?

Response from Planning Minister Nicholas Boles (Grantham and Stamford, Conservative), on behalf of Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

I congratulate my Hon. Friend Nadhim Zahawi on securing the debate on a subject of such great importance to his constituents. He is not just my hon. Friend, but I hope, even after the strength of feeling that he has expressed tonight, my friend—and he is not just my friend, but one of the great talents and one of the most effective constituency representatives to be elected alongside me in 2010. Madam Deputy Speaker, I am sure you remember—I certainly do—his speech in May when he moved the Loyal Address. The whole House was moved when he talked of his family arriving in Britain with £50 in their pockets, refugees from tyranny in Iraq. He talked of his pride in representing Stratford-on-Avon, one of England’s most beautiful and historic towns. He paid tribute to another self-taught, self-made and self-created man: William Shakespeare, in my view the greatest Englishman who has ever lived.

I can understand my hon. Friend’s determination to protect Stratford-on-Avon from inappropriate development and his disappointment at this recent planning decision. I hope that he will appreciate that I cannot comment on the details of the decision, because it is still open to legal challenge by the authority or, indeed, anyone else. It would be wrong for a judge to comment on his or her court judgments, and in this capacity the Secretary of State acts in a quasi-judicial role. The reasons are set out fully in the decision letter.

I would like to reassure my hon. Friend about the Government’s commitment to localism in planning, while also illuminating the responsibilities, as well as the powers, that localism entails. The last Government believed that they could solve Britain’s long-standing and severe housing crisis through regional spatial strategies and centrally imposed housing targets. Whatever the merits of the original concept, the facts are clear: they failed miserably. They infuriated local communities, such as Stratford-on-Avon and many others, and infuriated and undermined the councils that represented them. Those councils, quite understandably, responded by dragging their feet in making plans and doing their best to challenge and evade those regional housing targets.

What was the result for house building? It stalled during an economic boom, so when this Government came into office, we embarked on a different approach. We decided to give local authorities, representing local communities, the power to plan and the responsibility to provide housing to meet housing need in their areas. We encouraged them to adopt local plans, and communities —those that wanted to—to adopt neighbourhood plans to reflect local views about how their places should develop. We also decided that regional strategies would go.

We are trying to make as much progress as we can, within the law, to get rid of those regional strategies, but thanks to our old friend, the EU directive, this has taken longer and been more painful than we had hoped. But we are making good progress. Today we published the consultation on the strategic environmental assessment of the north-east plan, which means that we have now published consultation papers on five of the outstanding plans, and we hope to be able to respond to the consultation and all the comments it attracts shortly—and by that I mean months not years. We are making progress and there is light at the end of the tunnel, although we all wish that we had reached the end sooner.

I could take the easy way out and blame the Shottery decision entirely on the regional spatial strategy—that nasty hangover from a dictatorial Government—but it would not be wholly honest to do so. The regional spatial strategies came up with numbers for a region’s objectively assessed housing need. Local plans need to determine equally objectively assessed local housing need in a local authority area. I want to help local authorities, not just in Stratford-on-Avon, but elsewhere, to understand both the powers and the responsibilities enshrined in the national planning policy framework, so that they can equip themselves to prevent such decisions in future.

England has a chronic and severe housing shortage, and we will fail the next generation of hard-working people if we do not build more homes for them to raise their families in. The national planning policy framework is therefore clear that councils must estimate their housing need based on an objective assessment of all available evidence and identify five years’ supply of deliverable, developable sites.

If an authority has an up-to-date local plan, with identified sites to meet five years of objectively assessed need, it has all the powers it needs to resist speculative applications for development on sites that lie outside the local plan. Such an authority need fear nothing from the Planning Inspectorate or even clipboard jobsworths such as me. However, if an authority does not have a plan or even a draft plan that contains an objective assessment of housing need and identifies five years of developable, deliverable sites, it runs the risk of its decisions being overturned on appeal, as happened in the case of Shottery. I know that Stratford-on-Avon has been working on a draft plan and has commissioned a housing options study to inform it. I welcome that, but the regrettable truth is that rates of housing supply in the district of Stratford-on-Avon have been lower than those in Warwickshire and England as a whole. Like many authorities, therefore, Stratford-on-Avon still has much work to do.

The good news is that the Government’s approach of devolving power and responsibility to local authorities is working. Forty-eight local plans have been adopted since May 2011, and 65% of councils have published a plan for public consultation. We also have 100 neighbourhood plans up and running, and we are supporting more than 200 communities to take control of the future shape of their towns and villages. I am delighted that Stratford-on-Avon’s neighbourhood plan is making progress, and I would like to offer my hon. Friend all my support and that of my officials to help to achieve the truly local control of planning that he and his constituents seek. I know that the answer I have been able to give this evening will not satisfy him or his constituents fully, but I hope that he and they understand that this Government have put in place that power and responsibility, which will enable the people of Stratford-on-Avon to take control of their town and preserve it for many generations to come.

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