HC Deb 18 March 1980 vol 981 cc375-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]

12.1 am

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I am pleased to have this opportunity of raising the issue of our country's land use policies, a subject of vital importance, particularly in a country such as ours, which is a small, densely populated island. It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. On average in the United Kingdom there is almost one person for every acre. Within England the figure runs at nearly 1,000 people to every square mile.

Even those general statistics conceal wide variants. For example, more than eight in every 10 of our citizens live in our towns and cities rather than in the countryside, and more than 40 per cent. of the people live on less than 7 per cent. of the land surface, in Greater London and the six metropolitan counties. Therefore, how we use every acre is vital. My case is that as a nation we have not been using those acres very intelligently.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment is to reply, because I know of his great interest in this subject. I also welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen), for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mr. Murphy) and for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst), because I know of the great interest that they have taken in this matter.

Although it can be argued that our population is no longer exploding, to use that inelegant phrase of the statistician —indeed, it has been static for the past few years—our urban areas continue to extend into the countryside around and eat up valuable farming land. In one sense that is inevitable, as development naturally takes place on our lowlands, and this is where our best and most productive agricultural land is to be found, but it is the scale on which this is happening that is disastrous.

We know that in England and Wales in the past decade well over half a million acres of land have been lost to agricultural use, and in the past year the rate has been much higher. In reply to a par- liamentary question that I put down recently, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food confirmed that in England and Wales 75,000 acres are lost annually to agricultural use. My calculation is that the figure for the whole of the United Kingdom is about 100,000 acres. Incidentally, of the 75,000 acres lost in England and Wales, more than 41,000 acres are lost to development purposes.

The effect on our agricultural economy cannot be good. Our farmers cannot go on producing more and more food on less and less land; nor should they, even if they could. At present we have to import half the food that we need to consume, and the proportion should be reduced rather than increased. Someone has calculated, perhaps more to capture publicity than anything else, that if we continue to lose agricultural land at the present rate there will be no farmland left in 200 years' time. Therefore, on both economic and environmental grounds it seems to make sense to have a national policy to conserve, not to destroy, our farming land.

As if that were not bad enough, at the same time the wastage of land and dereliction in our existing urban areas has been increasing. In the mid-1970s, official figures indicated that about 170,000 acres of land in our towns and cities were classified as derelict. That figure did not include other land that was lying unused. A conservative estimate suggests that today no fewer than 250,000 acres of land in our urban areas lie derelict, wasting or unused. We see the signs around us, not only in the well-publicised inner city areas. Virtually every large town in our kingdom has signs of this dereliction.

Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn and Hatfield)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, following the success of the new town concept, that principle should now be directed inwards rather than outwards—in other words, that we should no longer invade our green and pleasant land but should rebuild our grey and derelict land in the inner cities? Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield in my constituency can point the way. The additional advantage achieved by private enterprise in the garden city approach can provide particular benefit to areas such as Tower Hamlets in London, where 35 miles of corrugated iron surrounds unused, decaying land.

Mr. Chapman

My hon. Friend is right. In rebuilding and redeveloping our inner city areas, we can, as the Government propose, set up special urban development corporations to achieve that purpose. It is madness to go on eating into valuable countryside when acres of derelict land wait to be developed in existing urban areas.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Waver-tree)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to go further than the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill in stating that nationalised industries and local authorities should produce a register of derelict land? That would be the first step. Does he agree that there is need for more ambitious proposals if public authorities, which have been hoarding land for decades and more, are to recycle that land into public and private use? The only way that land can be brought into productive use is by auctioning it off.

Mr. Chapman

I am sure that when my hon. Friend the Minister replies to the debate he will take account of my hon. Friend's point. I have great sympathy with that view. My hon. Friend is an expert on these matters, particularly in his home city of Liverpool.

I do not believe that what has happened is the result of deliberate policies of successive Governments. However, the overall, end result has been disastrous to our country not only economically and environmentally but in other important spheres, such as the extra energy needed to continue to spread outwards, and the ecological damage, particularly to our countryside.

No person has done more to highlight this disastrous trend than Dr. Alice Coleman, head of human environmental studies at King's college, University of London. As my hon. Friends know, she was the director of the second land utilisation survey of Britain. More than any other person, she has pinpointed the particular damage when town meets countryside. Indeed, she has coined a new phrase—the rurban fringes. Her thesis is well known, and I have no need to expand on it this evening. Dr. Cole- man is a member of the newly created Land Council. I pay tribute to the work that that body is undertaking to ensure that there is wider public recognition of the whole problem.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the problem. I hope that he will understand why I believe that there is an urgent need on two fronts. I declare an interest as a qualified town and country planner and as a chartered architect. Obviously, I take an interest in environmental matters, although I have no financial interest in the issue that I have raised.

There is need for concerted action by the Government to discourage further unnecessary loss of argricultural land and a need to stimulate redevelopment of the derelict urban land to which I have referred. Together with that, there is a need for more intelligent and flexible use of the existing planning policies. The Town and Country Planning Acts are not wrong or deficient in any way. It is the intelligent application of them, at regional and county level in addition to local level, that is all-important.

Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is somewhat odd that the Government, in relation to major projects such as airports, are looking towards inland sites that are likely to consume the greatest area of land—whether of general amenity or agricultural value—when they should be looking to the creation of new land through reclamation from the sea?

Mr. Chapman

My hon. Friend has the matter exactly right. We know of the assiduous way in which he represents the threat that faces so many of his constituents and so much land in his constituency. The onus is on the Government to prove that there is a need for a new third international airport in the South-East. If there is that need, I ask them to consider sensibly—in recognition of the potentially good agricultural land that will be lost—estuarial sites, the use of which will be less damaging to the environment and to the agricultural economy of Britain.

It is not enough simply to say, as we have been saying, that there should be no building in the green belt areas. That policy can cause and has caused, the decline and death of villages, hamlets and the rural way of life in many parts of the country. It could be argued that sensitive and intelligent infilling on unproductive land in such areas could make community life economically viable once more. There are many places in the green belt—the coarse bracken behind the seedy row of terraced cottages—that could be used intelligently for modest infilling planning schemes, which would bring back life to such areas. I feel very deeply about that matter.

If there is to be a simple planning slogan for the 1980s, I suggest that it is "No more development on productive farming land". As a more general policy, there should be no more building on the rurban fringes, as Dr. Coleman calls them, until the acres of rotting, unused and derelict land in our towns and cities have been substantially reduced and redeveloped.

I hope that the debate will prove to be constructive. I salute the Government —and their predecessors—on their intentions and actions in tackling urban decay. I believe that the country is now aware—as it was not in the past—of the real menace and the problems of the inner city areas. We must tackle this urban decay, and I welcome the initiative that has been taken. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to reassure us tonight also that the Government are resolved to conserve our countryside and prevent further rural erosion.

12.16 am
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Marcus Fox)

The issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) has raised are extremely important. In particular, the loss of agricultural land to development is a long-standing problem and one that I fear will continue to exercise our minds as far ahead as we can see. I am grateful, therefore, for this opportunity to say what we are doing in this vital area, although I fear that my hon. Friend will not be as friendly to me as I draw to the end of my speech as he is now.

When we came to office 10 months ago, we immediately set about reviewing, in a comprehensive way, our planning and land use policies. Some of the results of that review have already been implemented. Some can be seen in the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill, on which a number of us are now suffering in Committee. Others are yet to come.

As always, of course, one immediately runs into conflicts of policy objectives. The overriding priority of the Government must be to halt and to reverse the economic decline of the nation. All our policies must be directed towards, or at least consistent with, the regeneration of our economy—the revitalisation of our society. And planning must play its full part in this.

Planning must be geared to assisting desirable development, not discouraging it. The system must be made speedier and more efficient and not bogged down in unnecessary detail. My hon. Friend is an ardent attender of environment questions, and he frequently puts this matter to me. It must reflect the sense of urgency that is so necessary in Britain today and be geared to encourage the initiative and risk-taking which the country needs.

At the same time, planning must still protect those parts of our countryside that need to be conserved. It must continue to safeguard our national parks, our areas of outstanding natural beauty, the green belts and the sites of special scientific interest. It has done that job well. Conservation is perhaps the greatest success story of our planning system so far, and we must not lose it.

Planning must seek to prevent all unnecessary losses of agricultural land. Indeed, it can be argued that agriculture is one of the few really efficient industries that we have: one of the few where we can hold up our heads in Europe. On economic grounds alone, therefore, we must restrict the encroachment of development on agricultural land.

The obvious key to unlocking this conflict of objectives is, as my hon. Friend has said, to make better use of land that has already been developed once or laid waste, especially in urban areas. Only by making better use of disused and underused urban land and by reclaiming derelict land can we relieve the pressure on our countryside.

Mr. Steen

The Government must have a policy which makes it clear that green field site developments will not go ahead until dormant, vacant and derelict land in the inner areas has been developed. That will not happen unless the Government make available infrastructure grants ahead of the private developers, because unless the infrastructure is there private developers will not want to develop. There is no point in talking about inner area revitalisation unless the resources are moved from the green field sites on the edges of the cities into the inner areas. Then, the revitalisation and the recreation of wealth will begin.

Mr. Fox

My hon. Friend must have had a hand in my speech, as he will realise if he bears with me for a little longer. I wish that I had the financial resources to put in train immediately all that he expects from me. At the same time, by attracting people and jobs to the more depressed urban areas, we can help to create the new wealth that is so essential to the revitalisation of those areas.

We have already announced a series of initiatives which, taken together, will help to draw in private investment and bring vacant and under-used urban sites into development. First, we have announced proposals for establishing urban development corporations in London docklands and on Merseyside—two of the areas with the largest amounts of vacant and derelict land. I know that my hon. Friend is a great supporter of this project, and I hope that he will bear with us a little longer to see the sort of success that we have. It is vital in the regeneration of derelict land.

Secondly, powers are being taken in the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill to improve the derelict land grant scheme and to widen its scope. Grant will be payable direct to private owners or developers and to nationalised industries, thus removing the need for the delay and cost of local authorities first acquiring and reclaiming the land. Also, grants will be available towards the costs of site investigation and surveys, towards the costs of basic infrastructure, such as sewers and access roads, and towards exceptional foundation and construction costs, to which my hon. Friend referred.

Thirdly, within the urban programme, we intend that more emphasis should be given to those works which will encourage private developers themselves to tackle the more difficult inner area sites. Fourthly, we are taking powers—also in the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill—to establish registers of unused and underused public land with a view to activating it. My right hon. Friend will announce as soon as possible the districts initially selected to have such land registers. Obviously they will be mainly urban in character.

The cumulative effect of those measures will be to encourage the use of land that has already passed out of agricultural use and to reduce the pressure to take more. I am not suggesting for a moment that, in themselves, these measures are sufficient—we still need strong restraints on proposals to develop agricultural land—but they are a useful start

It would be unrealistic, of course, to think that we can stop all development on agricultural land. I know that that will be a disappointment to my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet. There is no possibility of meeting all our needs for new factories, new houses and other essential developments without taking some land from agriculture.

Mr. Chapman

I should not like there to be any misunderstanding. I hope that I was not advancing a dogmatic thesis —no building on agricultural land. There is a wide classification of agricultural land. There are five different grades. Clearly, some of the land classified as agricultural is waste land or unproductive for farming. I advance forcefully the argument that there should be no further developments on good, productive farmland.

Mr. Fox

My hon. Friend is right. Our land use policy is designed to ensure, first, that only the minimum amount of agricultural land is taken and, secondly, that better quality land is not taken when lower quality land can reasonably be used instead. I am sure that is right, but it begs the question: are the controls that we hare sufficient, and are they being operated in the right way? That is precisely the sort of question that we, in my Department, have been discussing with the Ministry of Agriculture. We have not yet concluded those discussions, but one thing is clear. We need to keep a close watch on any departures from approved structure plans.

These plans, which are now beginning to cover most of the country, establish the patterns of future land use and give a fairly clear picture of the future impact of development on agricultural land. They are prepared and approved only after a great deal of public participation, and all interested parties contribute to their formation. The Ministry of Agriculture is, of course, closely involved in ensuring that the agricultural interest is taken fully into account.

But those plans are not rigid documents. There can be departures from the original plan, provided that the necessary safeguardng procedures are followed through. We shall need to maintain a close watch on any tendancy to drift towards greater use of agricultural land.

Mr. Haselhurst

My hon. Friend provokes me too far. How can he say that when the Government propose to make provision for a future airport in the South-East, which may lead to about 70,000 acres of good agricultural land being taken?

Mr. Fox

My hon. Friend is too experienced a politician to expect me to respond to a question that concerns airports policy and the third London airport. The subject is of concern to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade. I am sure that my hon. Friend's intervention will be considered.

As I was saying, these plans are not rigid documents. There can be departures from the original plan, provided that the necessary safeguarding procedures are followed through. We shall need to maintain a close watch on any tendency to drift towards the greater use of agricultural land. All large departures must be notified to my Department and to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Between us, we should be able to keep matters in check.

In conclusion, I should like to put the issue into perspective. We can take some comfort from current trends. About three-quarters of the land in England is in agricultural use, and another one-sixth is taken up by forestry, woodland and various other uses. Only a little over 10 per cent. is in urban use. That includes inter-urban transport and small villages. It is often said that 75,000 acres a year are being lost to agriculture. However, only 17,000 acres a year are currently being taken for development. That figure already appears to reflect a downward trend.

Mr. Murphy

I wish to emphasise that if one is to encourage investment in inner city areas, there is much to be said for enterprise zones. They would encourage private investment at a far greater rate. In addition, that would help to alleviate the problem of inner city decay.

Mr. Fox

I do not wish to forecast what might be contained in the Budget. It is well known that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is interested in enterprise zones. I had intended to refer to my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mr. Murphy). The reclamation of derelict land is running at about 5,000 acres a year. If more of that effort can be channelled into reclaiming land for development, it should make a useful contribution to reducing the losses of agricultural land.

I noted the remarks made about Dr. Alice Coleman. She has made a significant contribution. I know that the official figures have been criticised as underestimates. The fact remains that the average "take" for the last three years for which figures are available is only two-thirds of the post-war average. The figure for 1978 seems to have been the lowest since the war. However, I do not put too much reliance on those figures, and there is no room for complacency. More needs to be done. The measures that we are taking should accelerate a trend that appears to be developing.

Mr. Steen

Does my hon. Friend accept that although development corporations are good, they represent only two very small areas? Do the Government have any plans to do something about areas of derelict land other than those on Merseyside and in London?

Mr. Fox

My hon. Friend is belittling this experiment. London and Liverpool have the greatest problems. He should give us time. The success stories in those areas will be copied. Enterprise zones fit into a pattern that shows that the Government are determined to do something about such land. In the past, green fields have been seen as the obvious place for expansion. That is no longer true. We shall take good agricultural land only as a last resort. I hope that my hon. Friend understands that we shall closely monitor any attempt to take over even one acre of grade one or grade two agricultural land. Many things can be done that will be of advantage to us and to the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Twelve o'clock.