The Housing Bill, which is working its way through the Lords as I write is something that we should all be aware of as it will have an effect throughout the South West.
Tied up with the Housing Bill and an essential part of it is the process of devolution of the South West and the role of the Local Enterprise Partnership.
Firstly a lot has been said about the impact on social housing and on housing associations if the bill goes through, but just as important is the impact on planning.
At the moment, it’s core to the planning system that locally elected people make local decisions on new developments.
This Bill changes that. It empowers the Secretary of State to give “permission in principle” to certain applications. Councils will be unable to turn down these type of applications.
This Bill also removes an important opportunity to object. When ‘permission in principle’ is given for a piece of land, you won’t be able to object to the development as a whole.
This isn’t just going to happen for one or two developments. Secretary of State Greg Clark says that 90% of all suitable registered Brownfield land will have permission in principle by 2020. This could be around 55,000 hectares in England – the same as 80,000 football pitches. Brownfield sites within AONB will also be affected as the Bill stands at the moment, which could affect the South Hams.
At the moment there are no limits on what could be built on brownfield sites and as councils will no longer be able to affect decisions or local people object, in principle this could mean large commercial developments.
An amendment was tabled just before Christmas, which various MPs have described as the privatisation of planning. This states that a developer can ask for a private individual to process the planning application rather than the local authority. This has been described as the ‘last shreds of the democratic process that safeguards how our communities are made, putting power instead in the hands of developers.’ There has also been concern that this could lead to the potential for corruption and conflict of interest.
This is where the LEP and the devolution process comes in. The LEP, known in our area as the heart of the south west LEP and covering Devon and Somerset, is basically a government business quango set up in 2011 to bid for money for local schemes and help determine local economic priorities and lead economic growth and job creation within the local area.
Their role seems to have grown since then. Our MP, Sarah Wollaston has described them as an important player in our future. The LEP is run by unelected volunteers from the business sector and local councils, their meetings are held in private and their minutes not normally published. There are concerns over accountability and transparency. Our LEP board is a mixture of councillors and business men, mostly it seems with interest in construction and transport. They are very well funded, they have a budget at the moment of £4 bn, which comes from DEFRA and the EU and an enormous amount of influence. They are leading our devolution bid and have created statements of intent to support their bid. At the moment they are pouring million into financing Hinckley power plant. This is their website -http://www.heartofswlep.co.uk/
There is concern among councillors and our MP that the LEP is focused mainly on growth and not on sustainability or the environment. Their statement of intent shows their vision of the South West to be a series of growth hubs and bypasses. I talked to them on the phone and was told that growth hubs could mean out of town business centres linked by by-passes and surrounded by new houses, much like Cranbrook new town outside Exeter. Totnes is identified as a growth hub on their plan. It seems there are plans to turn the area between Torbay and the A38 into an urban corridor. Whatever you think of these plans, the main point I can see, is that they have no public mandate to do this. There has been no consultation and no public discourse.
I personally do not want to see Totnes turned into a business hub or the surrounding countryside to be concreted over. Chris Hassell has described the situation as ‘this so-called devolution is not to give us freedom from Westminster control but rather to give business interests a free hand to push ahead with development of the rural west country in the image of the industrial `hubs` of NW, NE, SE, and midlands.’
If you are interested or concerned about devolution, the LEP and the Housing Bill you can find more information on these websites
Please note the 179,000 houses to be built before 2030