John Howell (Henley) (Con)
When I first came to the House in 2008, I began work on a paper called "Open Source Planning", which set out an important distinction and led to the abolition of the top-down targets that had existed under the Labour Government. It took a little while to get rid of them, but we have not replaced them. The Chancellor's target of 300,000 houses is an aspirational or soft target, because it cannot be achieved on its own without consequential changes to the planning system. We have already made a large number of changes, and there are more on the way.
The main target that we should be aiming for is one based on housing need. Under previous Administrations, it was left to individual councils to come up with the figure for housing need and methodology to calculate it. That was incredibly expensive for councils and led to an enormous number of court cases, as developers challenged them. I was very pleased when the Government asked me to sit on the Local Plans Expert Group and come up with a new methodology. We were the first to introduce a methodology based on Office for National Statistics figures. Although there are some problems with it, which I am sure the Minister is aware of, it is a very useful starting point.
Unfortunately, many other deals—for example, growth deals—have subsequently come into play and overridden those figures. The councils concerned have come up with other figures to replace the need figure that is based on, for example, strategic housing market assessment surveys that are quite old. We and councils must have an overriding desire to go back and take those figures out to the public to discuss what is being done and ensure that there is public buy-in.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) mentioned the NPPF. I am very pleased to have been involved in the original version of it. All we tried to do with it was to boil it down from thousands of pages to 50 to make it accessible to everyone.
The best targets are those in neighbourhood plans. They have been developed by the community, and the figures from the district council that they have been built on are merely the minimum figures. The community can add to them whenever it wishes. Neighbourhood plans are very good at protecting the open and green spaces that the community wishes to include. There is a great need to protect the people who spend a couple of years producing a neighbourhood plan, which is why I introduced a private Member's Bill to take away the right of appeal if a developer has definitely gone against a neighbourhood plan.
I do not think the system is broken. We have gone out of our way to try to fix it. I would point to the fact that the viability calculations that developers have to produce are public. They are available and have to be discussed, and local councils should have access to them.