I have long championed the need for brownfield development to be prioritised ahead of building on our precious Suffolk countryside and for planning decisions about new housing developments to be taken with our local communities at their heart.
It is because of my belief in protecting the countryside from over-development, and letting councils take the lead in developing evidence-based housing growth plans based upon local need, that a few years ago, I worked with other MPs to block suggested changes to the planning system. These changes would have potentially reintroduced a form of regionally set housing targets by the back door, as well as fast-tracked developments in certain areas without proper local consultation or scrutiny. These changes were wrong and I am pleased to have played my part in stopping them from happening and protecting the right for planning decisions to continue to be taken locally and overseen by our borough and district councils.
However, the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, currently going through Parliament is different. The Government has listened to my views and those of many other MPs. The Government is now set to reform and update the planning framework in a positive way that will benefit local communities here in Suffolk and elsewhere in the country.
A key part of the proposed reforms will see a new development plan system being put in place at a local level. This will mean that local plans (that is plans decided by local communities) will be given much higher priority within the planning decision framework, with a presumption that the local plan must be followed unless there is a very strong reason to override it. This is a significant step forward given the amount of work that goes on in our local communities to inform local plans. I am also especially encouraged to see a “use it or lose it” clause being introduced under the proposed reforms, which will prevent developers from stockpiling land and gaming the system. In future developers will lose their planning consent unless they proceed to develop the site in a timely manner.
Suffolk’s towns and parishes already have the power to develop their own neighbourhood plans. Thanks to these important Government reforms, top-down regional housing targets will be a thing of the past, and Whitehall civil servants, many of whom have never set foot in Suffolk, will lose the power to impose massive new housing developments on our area.
These new reforms will also help to increase the accessibility of neighbourhood planning by allowing Parish Councils and neighbourhood forums to produce simpler, and easier to produce ‘neighbourhood priorities statements’, which will undoubtedly be welcome news to our hardworking local Parish Councils in Suffolk.
Protecting Suffolk’s countryside is something which is close to all our hearts and under the proposed reforms, the Government is to also introduce a requirement to prepare ‘Environmental Outcome Reports’ when submitting new planning applications. This means that plans and projects will be assessed against environmental outcomes. In rural counties such as Suffolk, the framework also stresses the importance of due consideration being given to prioritising the use of agricultural land for food production. This something I have recently spoken about in relation to the inappropriate nature of the newly proposed large scale solar farms in Palgrave and Flowton. In future such opportunistic developments will be made more challenging as greater protection is conferred to protect food production.
Whilst I welcome all of these positive developments, I am continuing to fight for new laws to allow a community right of appeal against a planning decision. Currently, developers have the right to appeal but communities do not. It is time to level the playing field. Bad planning decisions need to be challenged, and residents deserve the right to do so.
Over the past few years, there have been developments recommended and granted for approval because of the fear of the cost to the council of defending an appeal. Levelling the playing field by creating a new community right of appeal would support council planning officers and councillors to make the right planning decisions - decisions which are in the best interests of the local community rather than decisions that best protect the council from the costs of a planning appeal.
In support of this, I am pleased to see that under the proposed Government planning law reforms, new Local Plan Commissioners are to be introduced to support or, if councils fail in their statutory duties, to take over plan-making. Alongside this, the Government looks set to introduce a set of measures to increase the effectiveness of planning enforcement, something I know from residents is often lacking here in Suffolk.
I remain firmly of the view that we must continue to better protect local consultation and decision making in the planning process. These new Government planning reforms are an important step in the right direction, and I shall continue to do all that I can as an MP to ensure our local councils have better tools to make the right planning decisions in the future.