HC Deb 22 November 1961 vol 649 cc1500-10

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

11.1 p.m.

Mr. James Dance (Bromsgrove)

I am grateful to have this opportunity to raise the whole question of the future of our green belts. When discussing matters of this sort, it is easy to dramatise and to become sentimental, but I do not intend to pursue that policy. I wish to give the facts, which speak for themselves. It is not always understood that quite as much benefit will be given to the residents of our large cities and towns by this green perimeter round them as will be given to the people who live in that perimeter. I am certain that when the original proposals were made, the view was taken into consideration that the people living in the urban districts would benefit by this breathing space which they would get outside the cities.

While this is a national problem for many tens of thousands of people living near large cities, for the purpose of clarity I should like to refer to the green belt area to the south of Birmingham, a large part of which is in my constituency and of which I have a certain amount of local knowledge. Also for the purpose of clarity, I should like to go briefly into the history of the green belt in that part of the world. I hope I shall be forgiven if I have to make quotations.

Under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, local planning authorities were required to prepare development plans for their areas. These plans were to show the broad pattern of land use proposed and they were designed to propose a background against which individual applications for planning permission might be judged. They required the approval of the Minister and of the local government authorities.

Worcestershire and Warwickshire county development plans were prepared and were approved by the Minister some years ago, but they did not contain a definite green belt because at the time there was no approved method of doing so. The Worcestershire plan contained, however, the general statement that It is the intention of the county council to submit to the Minister an amendment of the development plan by the inclusion of a green belt south of Birmingham and the Black Country based on a sketch map which has already been forwarded to the Minister. No doubt, the Warwickshire plan contained a similar statement. In fact, ever since the 1947 Act, both councils have been deciding applications for planning permission in those areas on the basis of a green belt policy, often supported by the Minister in doing so.

In 1955, the then Minister of Housing and Local Government recommended planning authorities to establish formal green belts wherever they were necessary, and he issued a circular at that time saying that what he wanted to do was to check further growth of the large built-up areas, to prevent neighbouring towns from merging into each other, and to preserve the special character of a particular town.

Sketch maps of the green belt of Birmingham were submitted to the Minister, who approved them in 1956, and he instructed both councils to use them as a basis for planning applications, pending the submission of formal amendments to their own development plans. It was then necessary to prepare formal amendments as the green belt was to be between six to ten miles in depth, and a great deal of survey work and much consultation were involved. Eventually, in 1959, Worcestershire and Warwickshire submitted their amendments to the Minister to incorporate the formal green belt, and the land in question was all included.

In the meantime, early in 1959 Birmingham City Council submitted a planning application to develop this land and land adjoining, a total of some 2,400 acres, for housing purposes. An inquiry took place in 1959 and, in a letter dated 5th April, 1960, the Minister gave his decision and refused permission. He said that he believed that it was very important to all Birmingham citizens that the green belt proper should be preserved and that he would be unwilling to see an outward expansion of the city as proposed.

Since then, various meetings have taken place. Early in September of this year we heard of the Minister's decision that about 600 acres in the Wythall area was to be developed to take Birmingham overspill. As a result of that, a public inquiry was set up by the Ministry itself. At that inquiry, strong protests were made on behalf of the residents concerned by various authorities, by the Worcestershire County Council, Bromsgrove Rural District Council, and the councils of Warwickshire and Solihull. As the inquiry is sub judice, I fully understand that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will not be able to make any comment on this aspect, but I wish to point out that until we get a final definition of the green belt area, great confusion will continue in the minds of many people—quite naturally.

In the past, the county councils have respected the wishes expressed by the then Minister in 1955, and have turned down many applications for private developers and builders. I am aware of that personally, as I have taken up several cases on behalf of my constituents. Reluctantly, they have accepted the ruling because they realised—or thought that they realised—that the green belt was to be held sacrosanct.

Another important feature of the green belt proposals is that people who wished to live in the comparatively rural atmosphere of the green belt moved in under the impression that they would not be disturbed, or have their privacy broken into, by the construction of large urban building programmes. The confusion in their minds can be imagined when they realised that the land, which they felt was safe from major development and in which they themselves had been refused planning permission for building, was now being considered by the Minister for a major building project for Birmingham City overspill.

Mr. Harold Gurden (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

There is a tremendous problem in Birmingham. If the green belt can be treated as an overspill area, if some owner-occupier private houses were built, as well as municipal houses, and if this area of land were not taken within the city boundary—and it would contain the same number of people whether it was in the boundary or not—would my hon. Friend object to the proposals of Birmingham?

Mr. Dance

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I was coming to the question of the problems of Birmingham. I realise that Birmingham has these problems. I think that a certain amount of development in the Wythall area could be accepted, but I do not wish to see mass building, and the whole conception of the green belt as a lung surrounding a big city being stifled and damaged by large buildings going into the green belt area. I would not object to a certain amount of private development.

We all appreciate the plight of the people of Birmingham, that plight being largely due to the Government's good policy in slum clearance but being also due partly to the increased population. But I feel most strongly that this development should take place within the city's own boundaries, or should leapfrog over the green belt. Schemes have been put forward which I believe are being considered at the present time, and I believe that those schemes would be more acceptable. They would involve either the building of new towns —and one at Dawley is under consideration—or more town development schemes, of the kind being proposed at the moment for Redditch, Droitwich and other towns in the same area.

If projects such as the present Birmingham one were allowed to proceed, where would the process end? Once the green belt had been penetrated in one place it would be far too easy to argue that it could be penetrated elsewhere. I can foresee the whole conception of lungs round the big cities being entirely forgotten. Once again we should see the ghastly sprawl of towns and cities, growing like ugly sores across our green countryside.

I assure my hon. Friend that there is grave apprehension in the minds of many of my constituents. If it is in their minds it will eventually be in the minds of many other thousands of people, who at present imagine that they are living in a green belt area but who, when they read about the situation now occurring in the Wythall district, will have serious doubts about it.

Mr. Victor Yates (Birmingham, Lady-wood)

Does not the hon. Member take into consideration the thousands of people in Birmingham who are condemned to live in slums? The alternative that he suggests is no solution at all. Unless some action can be taken immediately the Birmingham slum clearance programme will come to a complete halt. It is a grave problem for Birmingham. It is easy for Bromsgrove.

Mr. Dance

I will tell the hon. Member what Birmingham can do. It can use the land it has at the moment. It has a devil of a lot of it, and it should be able to use it.

Mr. Yates

Where is it? Ask the Minister. Ask the Government.

Mr. Dance

It is very close. It can use quite a lot of land, and it should get on with its present development. The outlook for Birmingham is better, and not worse, than it was in 1960. In 1960 the Minister was still refusing Birmingham a new town. Now he is providing a new one, and perhaps two. He is also taking a more active part in promoting town development schemes for Birmingham. There is evidence that Birmingham's land shortage will not become any more acute before 1967. Let it get on and use its own land.

I am fully sympathetic with the people to whom the hon. Member refers, but there is really no point in being down-hearted. It is for the people themselves who live in the cities that we are all speaking. It is they who will benefit in the long run. There are other schemes in hand at present, and I hope that they will come to fruition. I really do have the greatest sympathy with the people to whom the hon. Gentleman refers.

Mr. V. Yates

There are 60,000 families waiting for homes.

Mr. Dance

Yes, and there is the land. Why destroy the green belts? There is land at the moment for immediate development, immediate. One has only to go there and it can be seen. As I have already said, there are towns such as Redditch, Droitwich, and so on, and there is this conception of a new town. I say, "Chase up your Birmingham city councillors and get them to build on land which they have at the moment."

It is now 13 or 14 years since the town and country planning department was required to prepare plans, and it is six years since the Minister of Housing and Local Government asked the local authority to prepare a formal plan. I say that it is high time that the decision was made. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will give an assurance that a final decision about the green belt will be forthcoming in the very near future, and that, when this decision is made, the green belt will really be sacrosanct.

I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend will give a definite assurance and thereby remove from the minds of my constituents, and the many thousands of people throughout the country, their fears as to the future of their land, their homes and, indeed, their whole way of life. They must have this assurance so that they may know where they stand.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Geoffrey Rippon)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance) has raised this topic at an opportune moment, a moment when green belts are again in the news. I cannot say much about some of the matters he has raised, for reasons which are known to him, but, as he also knows, my right hon. Friend the Minister has already stressed that the green belts have come to stay. In the debate on the Address in reply to the Queen's Speech a few weeks ago, the Minister said: …I want to make it perfectly clear that we intend to adhere to the green belt policy." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th November, 1961; Vol. 648, c. 655.] This is now a suitable occasion for me to try to clarify exactly what the green belt policy is. There has, I think, sometimes been misunderstanding, not only about the nature and the purpose of a green belt, but also about the nature of the procedure for establishing one.

Of course, as we know, general acceptance of the green belt idea started with the proposals for a green belt around Greater London, contained in Sir Patrick Abercrombie's Great London Plan of 1944. He then said that, when a reasonable size was decided upon, and a certain margin of choice allowed for, the green belt should be the final barrier—a fortified urban fence—into which the town should not be allowed to extend. That is very much in keeping with the policy which the Government have consistently pursued. We say that a green belt, once established, should, except in very special circumstances, be maintained inviolate.

Therefore, it is all the more important that it should be sensibly drawn in the first place and that, allowing for what the Abercrombie Report terms "a certain margin of choice", it should not be drawn so tightly as to include land which it is unnecessary to keep permanently open for the purpose of the green belt, or land which is already so built up that it cannot reasonably be said to be "open development".

The success of the London green belt, which is now established in the approved development plans of the counties concerned, and which is being maintained despite all the pressures for building land, prompted an extension of the policy in the 1955 Circular to which my hon. Friend has referred. In that Circular, and in a later one in 1957, the procedure for establishing a green belt, was shown as starting normally with a sketch plan.

If preliminary approval is given, the next step is to define the boundaries precisely and to put forward proposals as a formal amendment to the development plan. At that stage the proposal is open to public criticism and objection and an inquiry is normally held. There may even be another inquiry if the Minister decides to put forward a modification to the proposals. I think that this happened at Wythall, in which my hon. Friend is interested.

To some people it may appear rather incongruous that there should be a situation in which the Minister is both empowered, indeed required, to put forward modifications to green belt proposals, and to stand in the appellant position in relation to his own modifications, but this follows on acceptance which the whole House endorsed at the time—of the specific recommendation of the Franks Committee to this effect. It is all part of the process of ensuring that at every stage there is full public consideration of the proposals put forward.

It is only when all these stages have been completed, if the Minister then approves it, that the green belt in fact becomes part of a statutory development plan to be maintained subsequently, except in very special cases, inviolate. This crucial position is reached only when realistic boundaries are settled by the decision on a formal green belt proposal, and not before. As yet, only one green belt has been formally approved—the one round the Greater London area. To date, out of 70 sketch plans submitted, 47 relating to 16 green belts have been accepted generally or in part and 23 proposals have been submitted for formal incorporation in development plans.

It is fair to say that over the greater part of the country we have nothing more than green belt proposals safeguarded by a measure of interim control. What happens is that during the period between the submission of the sketch plan and the formal incorporation in the development plan local planning authorities are asked to apply a restrictive policy to building in the areas shown on the sketch plans as if they were established green belts, leaving the Minister as the ultimate adjudicator on appeal on any particular issue that may arise. I have noted what my hon. Friend has said about Wythall. I think that he set out the history as fully and fairly as he could, but this is a matter which, since the issues have been the subject of the recent inquiry, is in a sense sub judice. It is now before the Minister and I do not think it would be in any way appropriate for me to offer any comments.

Reverting to the general observations, I hope they will be of some help to my hon. Friend in forming his own conclusions on particular cases. It is clearly important to prevent nibbling at either side of any proposed green belt and genuinely to permit development only in terms of the 1955 Circular for the purposes of: agriculture, sport, cemeteries, institutions standing in extensive grounds or other uses appropriate to a rural area. On the other hand, since the boundaries of the green belt to be ultimately incorporated in the development plan have to be drawn with particular care, the process of approval is necessarily a slow one. It is, therefore, important that the Minister should be free to decide in appropriate cases that certain provisional boundaries are too tightly drawn or that some important and specific issue must be decided before the whole green belt area is finally settled.

In formulating green belt proposals we do well to consider that, when necessary and where possible, existing towns and cities must be allowed some elbow room. That is not by any means the same as allowing urban sprawl or ribbon development, for the alternative to allowing natural development may result in unnecessary overspill to the less suitable areas. I am sure that the aim must be to regulate and guide, rather than to hold up or direct this natural force of expansion.

There is no question whatever of green belts becoming what someone called "green ditches separating subtopias." There is no intention of just repeating urban sprawl on the other side, where it must also be under planning control. Nor, in my view, should the green belt itself be thought of as just an area subject to negative control.

It is worth remembering that the Scott Report on Land Utilisation in Rural Areas, published in 1942, is the starting point for much of our thought on this subject. That Report directed its attention not merely to the preservation of rural amenities, but also to the well-being of rural communities. When the members of the Committee which prepared that Report spoke of the green belt, they emphasised that the term was widely misused by those who thought that it meant a belt of land to be preserved from building—or "sterilised"—and that such a concept was false. They did not want sporadic or scattered building, but they expected village extensions and even new villages and other appropriate development.

Planning in the proposed green belt is necessary in the interim period and has been directed primarily towards protecting and conserving existing facilities. It is right, however, to think of the green belt in more positive terms, as having recreational and landscape values which could be enhanced or created in some parts of the country which the Industrial Revolution has left derelict.

Mr. Dance

May I repeat the question I asked at the end of my remarks? Can my hon. Friend give an assurance that a green belt formula will be settled and, so that the people in these areas may know where they stand, made known in the near future?

Mr. Rippon

We are making substantial progress, as the figures of sketch plans and proposals I gave indicate. It is much better to be slow than wrong.

11.29 p.m.

Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Aston)

I should not have intervened in this debate had the question of Birmingham, Wythall, not been raised. Is my conception of the green belt correct—that it is the intention to preserve the amenities for a few fortunate dwellers who like to live in the rural areas?

Mr. Dance

I stressed from the beginning that people living in the urban areas, in the cities, were to benefit more from having this breathing room around them than the people inside the areas.

Mr. Silverman

It is really nonsense to suggest that it is of any real value to the overcrowded people of Aston or Ladywood to have somewhere in Wythall to visit when they are living in terrible and overcrowded conditions. The trouble is that many people living in or near the green belt areas do not want any interference with their district. They do not mind private residents coming along, but they object to council house residents from Birmingham coming in. Is that not the view of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden)?

Mr. Gurden

I am not in the least against the Birmingham scheme, but I see no reason why there should not be some of the other types of houses too, even if only a small number of them.

Mr. Silverman

That is not an issue. We are discussing the green belt, and that is infringed whatever type of houses are there. If that matter is raised, it shows the real objective of the move. In substance, those people say, "I'm all right, Jack, and I don't care two hoots what happens to the poor, overcrowded people of Birmingham."

For Birmingham and the Midlands conurbation more is wanted than just a new town. That is long-term, and requires development of both industry and houses and will not be solved to any considerable extent in the next ten years. There is not only the question of a new town; overspill is an essential part of the solution of Birmingham's problem, and must therefore be proceeded with. Incidentally, that is not only my view but that of the Birmingham City Council. It is the unanimous view of both parties there, because they realise that it is quite inevitable.

I shall not again quote the number of people—there are thousands of them—on our housing register, or the number of houses that will have to be built in the overspill areas for not less than about 50,000 families—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Twelve o'clock.