HC Deb 12 March 1974 vol 870 cc180-6

9.18 p.m.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

This is the first of the Adjournment debates of this new Parliament. It is customary at this time to raise matters of local concern, constituency issues, and it is a valuable opportunity for backbench Members to do just that. The issue that I wish to raise this evening is a matter of great concern to my constituency, the issue of Sutton Park and the need to preserve it.

I want, first, however to congratulate the hon. Gentleman the Minister who is to reply to the debate on his promotion and to wish him well in his new office, and, secondly, to pay tribute to my predecessor as the Member for Sutton Cold-field, Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd. His contribution to politics was quite outstanding, and I am very conscious of the example he set. His was a political career that spanned half a century. He first stood for Parliament in 1924. Among his offices, he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Stanley Baldwin, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power for three crucial years during the war, Minister of Fuel and Power between 1951 and 1955, and, finally, he was Minister of Education. It was a truly distinguished career. In addition, he was a much respected and much liked Member of Parliament. He was the Member for Sutton Coldfield from 1955. He leaves many friends there, and certainly he has the best wishes of not only myself but of his constituency for a happy and a long retirement.

The subject that I raise tonight, Sutton Park, occupies a very special position among residents of Sutton Coldfield. It is a unique park in the Midlands. It is 2,400 acres in size. It includes some 70 acres of water. Its characteristic is that it is a quite natural park. It is natural country. It is in no sense an artificial park. It has not been devised by some planner of parks. Indeed, the whole aim of policy has been to prevent either the planners changing it or the developers commercialising it. In the words of one of the leaders of the group in Sutton Coldfield concerned with this park, it is a piece of untouched and wild country in an increasingly urban area.

It is also a park which is very rich in tradition. The park was given by charter to the people of Sutton Coldfield in 1528 by Henry VIII. It was given for the benefit of the people of the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield and, indeed, for their successors. That is specifically stated in the charter. Since then it has provided a much prized and highly valued amenity for local residents, for not only residents of Sutton Coldfield but residents throughout the areas surrounding Sutton. It has been administered by the corporation with skill and dedication. I pay tribute to that.

The concern about the park's future springs basically from local government reorganisation. Under the reorganisation Sutton Coldfield joins with Birmingham, and authority over the park rests with the new Birmingham District Council when it comes into operation.

I should like to make it clear that there is nothing in the pronouncements of the new council, even at this stage, that leads one to believe that it wants to change the status of this park. This is essentially a non-party issue. All men of good sense and good will want to see this park preserved. It is an outstanding natural amenity in the area and is recognised as such by most people and by all people of good will in the area. But what must also be recognised is that a new concern has been sparked off by some statements which have been made locally. Basically, these statements have been to the effect that the park should be considered as potential development land.

I should like to emphasise that I do not regard these statements as typical in any way. The statements which have been made have been foolish and ill-advised. But this has heightened the concern about the future of this park, and, in particular, it has very understandably heightened the concern about how best to preserve Sutton Park itself.

This question was taken up with the previous Government. It is my intention to discover whether the attitude of the new Government is basically the same as the attitude stated by their predecessors. I underline again that this is totally a non-party issue. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that the attitudes remain the same.

The last Government examined the question of use in depth. They considered many other possibilities, such as whether the park should be designated as a country park and whether it should be included within the green belt. They considered that neither of these proposals was appropriate because of the park's situation within a built-up area. They then considered whether a Private Bill should be promoted for the protection of the park and decided that it would provide no added protection beyond that afforded by existing legislation. That view was confirmed to me only a few weeks ago by the then Ministers at the Department of the Environment. The legislation which the last Government considered to be so crucial was the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. Under Section 121 public open space may be appropriated to other uses only by an order. Such an order would need a public inquiry, and it would require the confirmation of the Secretary of State. The view of the Secretary of State is therefore crucial. The last Government gave clear assurances that they wanted to see the park preserved. They gave those assurances both in the debates on the Bill which reorganised local government and in correspondence to me. I hope that tonight the Government will underline those assurances and give them anew.

Perhaps I may refer to the contents of the Queen's Speech. In it the Government commit themselves to the protection of the environment. That is a valuable pledge and one which is certainly welcome on the Opposition side of the House. In view of that we must therefore recognise what the protection of the environment entails. Hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise the demand for new housing and new development, and, clearly, any Government must address themselves to that problem. But no Government will be lightly forgiven if they take the easy way out of simply building on the land which is most readily available; namely, green belt land and parkland.

That policy must demand a balance. There must be a balance between the need for development land and the need not only for agricultural land but for land which can be used for recreational purposes. Surely nothing is more important than that recreational amenities, certainly near some of our big cities, should be preserved. The West Midlands generally has become increasingly urban. Yet here is a park which has survived the encroachment of urban sprawl, a park which provides attractions and amenities for all groups.

We should do well to consider the groups who use the park. It is used generally by the public for relaxation, a public which welcomes this piece of preserved country on its doorstep. It is used for amateur sport like cross-country running, riding, fishing and boating. It is used on special occasions for organised events like, for example, the recent RAC rally. It acts, apart from other things, as a sanctuary for wild life. In other words, it is a park of outstanding natural beauty which is of great value to society generally. It is a park of enormous attraction, and I hope tonight that the Minister will give the assurance that the new Government recognises the value of preserving a park of such importance.

9.30 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Robert C. Brown)

I thank the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) for his kind remarks. I feel I shall do justice to the case which he has so ably expounded this evening, but if there are any points which I do not deal with no doubt one of my colleagues in the Department of the Environment will write to him.

It is understandable that the hon. Gentleman, in his first speech as the new hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, should have been concened with the future of Sutton Park, given rumours, however unfounded, that this magnificent natural open space should be turned into a massive housing estate. I am afraid that many hoary old skeletons were resurrected on the election battlefield, and certain Press reports have clothed such fantasies with a reality they do not deserve.

I am grateful for the opportunity to lay this wraith to rest. I am only surprised it should have reappeared so soon after the debate in the Committee stage of the Local Government Bill. In that Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Denis Howell), described the pleasures to be enjoyed tramping the park and doubted whether anyone in his right senses would want to see it built on. The right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) agreed with him.

I would like to reassure the citizens of Sutton Coldfield that none of us wants to see the destruction of such a magnificent national asset and natural park as this is. The park is an amenity not only to its immediate neighbours but to the people of Birmingham and Walsall generally. For such people Sutton Park is like Hyde Park or Richmond Park to Londoners, and such national and regional assets must not be wilfully destroyed.

I am not denying that some additional land for housing will be required by the districts in the new metropolitan county close to job opportunities and good public transport routes. But this has been a matter of discussion for some years now and solutions have been found in the West Midland regional strategy, which was agreed on 1st January of this year, and in the general proposals of the Warwickshire county structure plan.

The report of the panel which examined that structure plan is expected shortly and I hope my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will issue his decision letter in the early summer of this year. I understand that some progress has also been made generally by the councillors of the present county of Warwickshire and the county borough of Birmingham on the preparation of a local plan to fill in the details for the future development of Sutton Coldfield.

This work will be handed over to the new councils which will have responsibility for guiding and controlling the development of that area in the future. I have no cause to doubt that those councils realise the urgency of the work and that they will also be fully aware of the need to conserve vital amenities such as Sutton Park.

In view of the general agreement that the park should be preserved as a public open space—it is indeed zoned as public open space on the 1947 Act town map for the borough—I have given careful consideration to whether present protection of the park is adequate or whether that protection should be improved. One suggestion has been that the park should be zoned as green belt.

Sutton Coldfield is relatively tightly encircled to the west, north and east by the draft Staffordshire and Warwickshire green belts. During 1973 the Department has taken steps to regularise the position of these areas. Modifications are under consideration which may have the effect of making the area of draft green belt along the east side of the built-up area of Sutton Coldfield into an interim green belt.

But green belts have always been considered as a planning tool to check untidy, unplanned growth of large built-up areas into the surrounding countryside, and more recently as a method of protecting wedges of open countryside running from a green belt proper into large built-up areas. Sutton Park, being surrounded by built-up areas, fits neither of these concepts. It is neither a belt nor a wedge but a green island. Other suggestions have included turning the park into a countryside park under the provisions of the Countryside Act 1968, but this was ruled out in view of the park's location within a built-up area, and it has been so stated by the Countryside Commission. Other suggestions, such as a local Act, add next to nothing to the very considerable protection afforded by existing general legislation. I should like to spell this out in detail.

Under the provisions of Section 122 of the Local Government Act 1972 a council would be entitled to appropriate open space for another purpose only if it did not exceed in aggregate 250 square yards and only after advertising its intention and considering any objections which might be made. Should a council wish to appropriate land which would bring the aggregate from any particular open space above 250 square yards it would have to do so by means of an order under the Town and Country Planning Act 1971—Section 121. This, in turn, would bring into effect the provisions of the Acquisition of Land (Authorisation Procedure) Act 1946, in the First Schedule, paragraph 11. Under these provisions the order would be subject to special parliamentary procedure unless the Secretary of State certified that he was satisfied that other, equally advantageous land was being given in exchange or that the land was required for widening an existing highway and the giving of exchange land was not necessary.

I want to emphasise, since there has been some misunderstanding, that the Secretary of State is required to advertise his intention to issue such a certificate and to invite objections. If there are any substantial objections, a public local inquiry is held before a final decision on whether to issue a certificate is reached. In cases in which the Secretary of State does not issue a certificate, special parliamentary procedure provides an opportunity for an objector to an order to lodge a petition in Parliament and, if he can satisfy the rules about petitioning, to be heard by a Select Committee.

What this means is that under the provisions of the Local Government Act 1972 and the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, the use of Sutton Park as a public open space could not be changed without the approval of the Secretary of State for the Environment. As I have already assured the honourable Member for Sutton Coldfield, such approval has not been sought, and if it were I cannot see it being given.

Sutton Park has remained with the Warden and Society of Sutton Coldfield, the predecessors of the local authorities, since it was given to them by Henry VIII in 1528. My right hon. Friend and I have no intention that this ancient and Royal gift should now be taken away from the people of the area.

I have the greatest pleasure in emphasising the assurance I have already given.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Ten o'clock.

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