In the three years since the tremendously far-sighted people of Somerton and Frome prodded me into the spotlight by taking me as their MP, I’ve received tens of thousands of emails and hundreds of letters. I’ve met with hundreds of the country’s finest constituents at countless MP surgeries.
We contact our local politicians because either we want help and support or because we’d like to influence thinking and thereby shape the future, which pretty much comes to the same thing. And it’s fascinating to be at the sharp end and see the range of requests.
All human life is here, as the saying used to go. From the utterly mundane to the extraordinarily serious and critically important, an MP faces appeals to help with everything. So which topic, you ask, fires up the greatest amount of concern? You’ve guessed it. Planning.
And ironically perhaps, this is one subject in which MPs play no part. The omniscience of national politicians draws its boundaries firmly outside matters of local planning. Decisions of properties and planning are made by district councils who, rightly, aren’t keen on MPs sticking outsize wellies into their affairs.
But of course it’s Westminster that sets those boundaries. Seven years ago, the Localism Act was introduced with the aim of devolving powers to local communities for matters which most impacted those very communities. In other words, it was supposed to give local people power over their own surroundings. Then the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) arrived to work hand-in-hand with the Localism Act to give councils clear guidance on what’s what in terms of local planning decisions.
But I don’t think it’s worked. Planning policy – like so much else - is very much driven by urban areas of the country and their needs. As so often, rural Britain is overlooked.
Here in Somerset, developers apply to add vast housing estates to our small market towns and villages which lack the infrastructure to deal with the growth. Local parish or town councils reject the applications. District council planners reject the applications. The developers appeal and, hey presto, the planning inspector - following the NPPF line and looking at the apparent housing need in line with the Local Plan - upholds the appeal and the housing is built.
Worst still, the developers agree to build local amenities in line with a Section 106 agreement on which their planning was contingent. Then, halfway through the works, they say it’s now not looking quite so good financially, so they don’t bother. And there’s little or no comeback.
There is a plan afoot (covered in detail in these pages some months ago) to build a huge new town in the middle of Somerset countryside, with the aim of removing the continual threats to our towns and villages. Cutting off our nose to spite our face springs to mind. I’m not keen on a town the size of Taunton plopping into our midst.
What we need is a revision to policy. And that’s what I will continue to press the Government to provide. We need a rural NPPF; a detailed review of our planning policy with the English countryside front of mind, to strike a balance between protection and growth. Providing truly affordable homes but with stewardship and conservation at the heart of our thinking. There’s much work to be done, as my brimming inbox confirms.