HC Deb 21 February 1978 vol 944 cc1398-406

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

12.27 a.m.

Mr. Jim Callaghan (Middleton and Prestwich)

I should like to thank Mr. Speaker for allowing me the time and the opportunity to speak about an important planning proposal put forward by one of the neighbouring local authorities which adjoins my constituency. The proposals involve the development of a large industrial estate along the borders of my constituency. If the proposals were accepted they would materially, substantially and adversely affect the lives of my constituents, particularly those living alongside the area in Alkrington, Middleton. It is on behalf of my constituents that I wish to object to these proposals.

I should like to refer to the proposal put forward by the Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council to develop for industrial purposes land at Greengate which adjoins my constituency and which was the subject of a planning inquiry in September 1977. As the official who held the inquiry has now submitted his report and recommendation to the Secretary of State, a decision concerning this matter resides with my right hon. Friend. Consequently, I have been asked by my constituents to list their objections to the proposed industrial development plans and present them to the House. Clearly, I cannot ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give a decision tonight. That would not be fair to him or the two local authorities involved.

The issues are deep and complicated. My hon. Friend will need the wisdom and judgment of Solomon to reach a decision satisfactory to all parties. I raise my constituents' objections to the proposed plans because I agree that there is a deepseated conflict of planning strategies and therefore the objections are substantial.

At the inquiry in September objections were heard not only from individuals but from representatives of local residents and other local organisations whose credentials speak for themselves. I refer to Mr. Elliot, of the Alkrington and District Owner Occupiers Association, a notable and worthwhile body; Mr. Parker, of the Blackley Golf Club; Mr. Haigh, of the Ramblers Association; and Mr. Lee of the Peak and Northern Footpaths Society. They represent interested parties which would be adversely affected if the proposals were allowed.

I am also aware that many individuals objected to the proposals in a private capacity. I would refer specifically to county councillor Norman Weall, whose county electoral district abuts on to the application site and who has told me of the many people living in the area who have made representations to him against the proposals. He would have attended the inquiry, but was prevented by illness.

Rochdale Borough Council has also made representations opposing the proposals. Therefore, in one way and another the ordinary member of the public in my constituency has been able to make his voice heard through his elected representatives or public bodies in opposing the proposals.

But from the supporters of the proposal we have heard little, other than from the public authorities, the land owners and the prospective developers. We have not heard from local employers, industrialists anxious to move into Oldham or even from local trade union officials. The only evidence of this nature consisted of letters from agents on behalf of industrialists who might seek a site anywhere in the north-west of North Manchester. One would have expected that some of these people might attend the inquiry to support the proposal.

I say this because the proposed development is major and will require many acres of land. It has been said that the only land available in the north and the east of Manchester is on three sites of five and a half acres and only one greater than seven acres. I dispute that. I am sure that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith), who is present, will agree that we in the Rochdale borough have a magnificent site that we can offer to the Oldham planners. As the planners propose to provide 2 million square feet of industrial premises and 5,000 jobs over the next 10 years they indeed need a large site. As Greengate is a large site, and as a figure of 109 acres has been quoted, obviously it would suit Oldham's needs.

What then are the objections to the use of this site for industrial development? My strong objections against these proposals are that the industrial premises are to be sited on green belt land—the only green belt land that is left between Manchester, Oldham and Middleton. If that is not bad enough, the industrial premises will adjoin the beautiful Alkrington housing state estate and will, in effect, destroy the estate which, in my estimation, is one of the most attractive estates to be found anywhere in England.

To accept these proposals would also be a substantial departure from the development plan for the region, and I strongly suggest that, in the light of this substantial departure from the development plan, the planners must establish that the need for this development overrides all other considerations. I do not believe that they have done that. I believe that the longstanding green belt policy should be upheld. I believe, too, that this need for more industrial land has clashed with the need for the green belt to be safeguarded.

I must ask the Minister whether he is satisfied with the evidence provided by the planners that they have examined all alternative proposals to those for Greengate. Have they examined other land in their own borough that might be more suitable than building on green belt areas? Is it necessary to acquire such a large site as this? If the need for larger sites is not made out, could not the planners meet the demand for additional land from smaller sites within their borough, particularly those that are becoming available as a result of demolition? Have all alternative proposals really been examined? I think not.

As a former councillor on the old Middleton borough's industrial development committee, I was particularly interested in promoting the Stakehill industrial development in joint partnership initially with Oldham when it was first suggested that Oldham and Middleton were to be amalgamated under the local boundary reorganisation proposals. The Stakehill site is a substantial area of undeveloped land on Oldham's frontiers, and it has been approved by the Department for industrial use. It is a site which is much closer to the centre of Oldham than is the Greengate site. It is close to the M62, and a spur from the motorway which connects Oldham and Rochdale with the M6 links up with the site.

The head of the development company at the Stakehill industrial site, Mr. John Finlan, is reported as having said: 'Nobody from Oldham has ever been to see me, or asked to see me on site". I suggest, therefore, that those concerned have not investigated all the possibilities that are available to them for the development of their industrial strategy. Mr. Finlan submitted that until the planners had been escorted round the site they were not in a position to say what could be done at Stakehill.

Mr. Finlan has recently been granted planning permission for 26 industrial units on the site. There are many more acres available for the development of industry in this area. Could not Oldham use this area—the area for the 26 units—rather than the green belt area in Greengate? If as has been said, there are strategic and infrastructure difficulties, could not they be overcome by the strategic planning authority?

I repeat, in terms of the strategic issue of green belt land, I feel that to allow this land to be used for industrial development would be a substantial departure from the development plan. In my submission, any proposal to take 109 acres out of the green belt would indeed have strategic implications. In this case the taking of 109 acres would remove almost the whole of the green belt in this locality.

The loss of the Greengate site as green belt land would be a very great and tragic loss to the area. Once green belt open land is lost, it is lost for ever. This is why it is a strategic issue, and why I bring it before the House tonight.

There is a further complication that I wish to draw to the Minister's attention. I refer to the proposed route of the Manchester outer ring road. If it follows the line given in the proposed plan, it will split the site in two. Until this route is settled no development at all can be commenced. I believe that this is a major factor and must be given very careful consideration before any decision on the future development of this land is reached.

We have the fact that it [...] be some years before the southern section of the site can be developed. This is hardly conducive to the solving of urgent industrial land problems.

Finally, I object to the loss of amenities of the residents of Alkrington. Open land of any kind is vital in an urban area, and the more built up the area, the greater value do pockets of open land acquire. The loss of the green belt land at Greengate would be a very great loss to the area. The fact that it is not available for recreation at present is immaterial and does not detract from its character. As I said, once open land is lost, it is lost for ever.

For these reasons, on behalf of my constituents, I oppose strongly the application for the use of green belt land at Greengate for industrial development purposes.

12.43 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Guy Barnett)

I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Mr. Callaghan) for raising this matter in the House this evening, because it illustrates very well some of the difficult problems being faced by local authorities in our older industrial regions. It is typical of my hon. Friend that he should raise subjects like this, which as was obvious from his speech, are of great concern to his constituents. It is typical of his record as a first-class constituency Member that he should raise this matter this evening.

As my hon. Friend said, the planning proposal by Oldham Borough Council for industrial development of the Greengate land is now before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, following the public inquiry held last September. My hon. Friend will appreciate that it is not possible for me to anticipate the decision in any way or to discuss the particular issues which might be factors in that decision. All I can say now is that the inspector's report on the public inquiry is receiving careful attention and that the decision will be accorded the priority urged in Circular 71/77 and will be made known as speedily as possible.

Before going any further I must make special mention of this circular. Circular 71/77, which was issued with the support of the local authority associations, urged local authorities to give priority to industry across the whole range of their functions. In particular, it stated that local authorities should give priority to the handling of industrial planning applications. My Department is similarly giving priority to work affecting industrial develepoment, including the handling of planning applications and appeals.

So I can assure my hon. Friend that this case is being progressed as quickly as possible, given the need for fair analysis of all the points of view. I can equally assure him that the sorts of issues raised by the case are ones with which we in the Department are becoming increasingly familiar, and about which we are certainly concerned.

The Greengate proposal highlights with especial vividness the sort of acute conflict which faces many of the local authorities in our older urban areas in their efforts to bring new economic life to their areas. Like much of the North-West Region, Oldham has for many years been striving to overcome the legacy of the past—the bad housing conditions of many of its residents, the decline of the old basic industries on which its former pros- perity was founded and a generally poor and depressing environment.

The town is still heavily dependent upon the textile industry and despite some success in the diversification of industry, rising unemployment in recent years has been accompanied by losses in available jobs. My hon. Friend will not need to be told of the efforts which Oldham Council has made to attract investment to the town. In this it has received help from the Government in the way of employment subsidy.

Nor will he need reminding of the outstanding initiative shown by Rochdale Council in pioneering the concept of the industrial improvement area. This concept, as hon. Members will know, has been taken up by the Government and included in the Inner Urban Areas Bill. The Government have also commissioned a study of the Rochdale industrial improvement area in order that the experience gained there, and the lessons to be learnt, might be analysed and made widely available to other authorities.

It is very significant, I think, that in Rochdale it has not been a question of the council doing it all. Once firms saw that a real effort was being made to improve the environment in which their workers had to operate, they put their own money into improving their buildings.

Furthermore, firms are seeking joint solutions to common problems—joint canteen facilities, for example—and I would like to think that the spirit of co-operation will be the normal result of declaring an industrial improvement area.

Rochdale's initiative shows that local authorities with enthusiasm and determination can do much, even under existing expenditure restraints. I understand that more than £1 million has been obtained for the Crawford Street project from the Manpower Services Commission, the EEC, and the Department of Industry.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the Government's White Paper, "Local Government and the Industrial Strategy", issued in July last year in which we emphasised the primary importance for national economic recovery of improving industrial performance and increasing productive potential. It is on the successful achievement of these economic objectives that other policies must depend. The Government, therefore, are determined to do everything possible to create a climate in which industry and supporting businesses will flourish. To this end we are currently seeking to ensure that industry is given a higher priority across the whole range of its policies.

Evidence was given at the inquiry indicating a shortage of readily available industrial land in Oldham, which could be a constraint on future economic development. The likely future demand for industrial land must depend on the individual decisions of many industrialists as well as more general trends such as the state of the national economy.

Some general observations can, however, be made. Oldham is part of the North-West intermediate Area in which Government assistance is available for the encouragement of industrial development and regeneration by way of regional development grant for industrial buildings and selective financial assistance. As such, it might reasonably hope to interest new industrial developers in locating there, but for this to be realised some range of attractive sites which can be readily brought into use is a pre-requisite.

Furthermore, as one of Britain's older industrial towns, there is a need for modernisation of industrial premises and relocation to accommodate expansion or to allow firms to operate in a more efficient environment.

The pace of such modernisation, as of new industrial growth, cannot be predicted, but Oldham needs to retain its existing industry as well as to attract new developers. This reinforces the need for a range of suitable industrial sites. To attract the new and diverse industries which are needed to give the employment structure a viable and stable base, the council argues that it must be able to offer new sites of reasonable size and with all services available.

However, in reaching his decision on the planning application for the Greengate site, the Secretary of State will need to have regard not only to these general considerations but also to the representations which have been made with respect to the use of this particular site. There are a number of relevant points for the Secretary of State's consideration of the application for this site.

The first is the need for the land to be retained as part of the proposed green belt and its existing and future value for agricultural or other uses of an open nature. The second is the need for land for industry in the area and the physical suitability of the application site for industrial use having regard to past excavations. The third is the likely effect of the development and of traffic generated by it on traffic flows and safety on nearby highways. The fourth is the effect the development is likely to have on the amenities of the area by reason of noise, smell, dust and smoke. Finally, there is the relationship of the site to the route for a section of a proposed trunk road—the Manchester outer ring road—which passes just to the south of the site, and to alternative routes.

My hon. Friend will agree with me that these are not straightforward matters to decide; nor are they insignificant ones for people in the area he represents.

My hon. Friend referred to the difficulty of this decision. I end by assuring him that we shall consider all these matters as carefully as we can, and I shall, of course, let him know when a decision is reached.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to One o'clock.