HC Deb 13 July 1982 vol 27 cc1008-16

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

1.48 am
Mr. Tim Renton (Mid-Sussex)

I wish to call the attention of the House to the urgent need to remove the growth area label from Mid-Sussex. That label stems from the strategic plan for the South-East that was approved by the Government in 1971.

When I became the parliamentary candidate for Mid-Sussex in 1972, one of my first interests stemmed from the certainty that the growth area label was a mistake. In the light of all the development that has taken place in the past decade, I am even more convinced than I was 10 years ago that it is a mistake.

I apologise for bringing this urgent matter to the attention of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment at this late hour. However, I am delighted to see two neighbourly colleagues in their places, my hon. Friends the Members for East Grinstead (Sir G. Johnson Smith) and for Horsham and Crawley (Mr. Hordern). Also in his place is my hon. Friend the Member of Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). Their presence emphasises the fact that we in Sussex feel about this issue.

I appreciate that it is thoroughly unusual to ask for a growth area label to be removed from a part of the country. We in Sussex have, like others, suffered from increasing unemployment, but in West Sussex the unemployment figures are only about 7 per cent. That is much lower than the figure in other areas. We have had so much house-building in the past 20 years that we now need a breathing space in which we can as a community absorb the changes and provide the necessary facilities for the many families and firms that are already in our part of the country. We must look to local firms to absorb school leavers and the unemployed with their natural growth rather than have the Government encourage other major firms to come into the area from elsewhere in Britain.

If you were fortunate enough, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to drive down the M23 on your way to Brighton, you would, when the M23 ceases, drive along the A23 for nearly 20 miles through my constituency. You would go first through the beautiful country of the High Weald, which is now an area of outstanding natural beauty. On your left would be the garden of Nymans, a National Trust property. You would then pass the Ardingly reservoir. On your left would be Balcombe viaduct. After Haywards Heath you would see the South Downs. In that lovely countryside you might wonder where all the growth is to be found about which I am speaking.

The drive down the A23 through beautiful countryside would conceal the incredible rate of growth that we have had in Mid-Sussex in recent years. Between 1971 and 1981 the population of the United Kingdom increased by 0.5 per cent. The population of Mid-Sussex increases by 18.5 per cent. Burgess Hill has been the fastest growing town in West Sussex, growing from 7,000 people in 1951 to about 22,000 souls, and still rising in 1982.

In many ways the growth is not surprising. To the north of us we have Crawley, a new town, to which many of my constituents travel for their daily work. Others go south to Brighton. Again, to the north there is Gatwick airport, which is growing rapidly. There is the possibility of a second terminus there, about which many of us have serious worries and reservations. To the south there are the Channel ports, including Newhaven. When trains run, which is not happening at present, we have a very good train network to London which is used by many commuters.

It is not surprising that with all these natural facilities we should have had a substantial rate of growth. However, what concerns my constituents, myself and the Mid-Sussex district council, which thoroughly supports the need to remove the growth area label, is not merely the innate growth of populations and firms that are already in the South-East but the growth that has come to us from outside—the new firms, with the attendant families, which have moved into our area.

In Mid-Sussex, we already see a great shortage of land for industrial development. It was announced by the council last weekend that it would release some 10 acres for new industrial development in Burgess Hill, and the view was that it would be snapped up straight away. In Mid-Sussex, we do not see anything like the number of workshops and the factory space for small companies which are starting that we should like to see.

The West Sussex structure plan has favoured continued new building in Mid-Sussex. The Mid-Sussex district council would much prefer stretching the present land allocation for house building from 1991–1996. But the county council suggests that another 9,000 dwellings should be built between 1991 and 1996 in Central Sussex, of which at least 5,000 would be in Mid-Sussex.

A recent survey showed that only 28 per cent. of new houses in Mid-Sussex were being bought by local residents. All the others were going to newcomers to the area. This stresses the point that so much of the building and development that has gone on is not for firms and families already with us but for others attracted into the area.

It is on that basis that I ask for the growth area label to be removed. It is obvious that this tremendous pace of house building has not been matched by an equivalent development of social and community facilities. We have not had the right amount of development in terms of schools, health care, recreation or open space. In that context, I quote from a recent report that was attached to the Burgess Hill local plan. It was prepared by the area office of the West Sussex county council social services department. It says that two new estates, Laylands Park and Folders Lane (Burgess Hill) totally lack facilities and minor research done with developers in response to community generated needs highlighted that there are no community resources planned. The requests from this area were for facilities to develop a Mother and Young Group, a pre-School playgroup, Brownies, Guides, Scouts and Cub Scouts. These needs are directly related to the needs of the range of families moving into the area. During discussions we became aware of the tremendous isolation and loneliness that many of the young mothers were experiencing … Feedback from social workers at the Child Guidance Clinic, Cuckfield Hospital and area office showed that this problem was increasing on the new estates". Recently, the West Sussex county council decided to sell three acres of open space at Marie Place in Burgess Hill. The idea was that the land would be sold and used for house building. That decision caused an outburst of local fury. Those three acres are not very well located in the town, but they are some of the small amount of recreational space available in the centre of the town. The news that the land was to be sold for house building provoked an indignant reaction from my constituents.

It has a very bad effect on a community when families move in and spend a great deal of money on their new houses, having taken on mortgages which are often too large for their budgets, only to find that there is no village atmosphere, no village hall and no community building. It is from circumstances of that kind that the family problems that I have descried arise.

In Mid-Sussex, we have had a continuing fight on our hands to keep the precious green gaps which separate villages and tow as—which separate Balcombe from Haywards Heath, Haywards Heath from Hurstpierpoint, and Hurstpierpoint from Keymer and Hassocks. If growth continued over the next decade at the pace at which it has proceeded in the past decade, all those green gaps would disappear, one by one.

It is easy for the Department of the Environment to say that with the development of housing we should be spending more on community facilities, new playing fields and so on, but my Conservative-controlled district council has always levied rates prudently. It currently levies a rate of only 14.3p and all that goes on the basic services, such as refuse collection, which automatically expand as houses are built and new families move in. There are no great sums available for capital projects, particularly as the council has tried to hold down rates in cash terms.

The Department cannot have its financial caution cake, which I respect, and eat that cake by telling a prudent council that it should spend more on recreational and leisure facilities.

I must ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment immediately to review the regional strategy for our area. Such a review is overdue and essential and it is also clear that West Sussex county council should be asked to be much more flexible over the county structure plan, so that not all the development that takes place in West Sussex is dumped in our part of the county.

Surrey must take its share of development and, as Gatwick airport is developed, the green belt in Surrey should not be sacrosanct.

Unless we have a review of the regional strategy and the growth area label is removed, we shall see within a generation urban sprawl all the way from Crawley to Brighton. The mavellous countryside that I mentioned earlier will be lost. We need a breathing space to accommodate what is already there.

I often think of my part of Sussex as potentially the Silicon Valley of Western Europe. The many high technology companies there are expanding and exporting well to Western Europe. But we cannot have chips—even silicon chips—with everything, and unless we have severe restraint now, the famous Sussex by the sea will become Sussex under the sea—submerged by people, concrete, airports and factories. I do not believe that that is what the people in Sussex want.

2.3 am

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (East Grinstead)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) on raising this important matter and I am grateful to him for allowing me to take part in the debate.

My constituency in East Sussex adjoins that of my hon. Friend, and his comments about Mid-Sussex apply with equal force to some parts of East Sussex. For example, one of my towns also rose in great wrath when it was suggested that it could accommodate many thousand more homes without the proper schools and with no hope of the proper social infrastructure being allowed. There are also totally inadequate road and public transport systems.

All in all, it is ludicrous to think that the area should be despoiled. We have a natural growth which will make it increasingly difficult for us to house our own people, but I should like to look at the issue from the view point of land use and farmers.

Hundreds of thousands of acres of virgin farm land are developed for industry and housing, while hundreds of thousands of acres of land in our big cities is not properly used. Much of it is derelict and it is ripe for such development. I do not want to talk about green belts being despoiled but I journey through south London and I see the land there which is not being properly used. If we want to provide jobs for the people of inner and outer London, who really need the jobs, that is where much of the development should take place rather then turning some of the beautiful countryside which is used for valuable farming purposes into a new industrial slum stretching from London to the south coast. We should not have our countryside murdered. That is why I support my hon. Friend.

2.5 am

Mr. Peter Hordern (Horsham and Crawley)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) for raising this important matter. The Cuckfield and Crawley area has been designated a growth area for some years in the original regional structure plan. Should not the whole concept of the growth area now be reviewed? Not only was it started many years ago but circumstances have changed enormously since then, in the sense that the population of London is fast dwindling and the growth in our area should no longer be appropriate when one thinks that the Docklands board and other development area authorities are trying to attract people back to London. The whole concept of the growth area should be reviewed. I fully support what my hon. Friend has said about that.

I echo what my hon. Friend has said about the importance of preserving the character of our countryside, in his area and in mine. He talked about the gaps between the towns and villages and how necessary it is to preserve them. Perhaps the most important is that narrow gap that separates Crawley new town and Horsham, which must be preserved at all costs.

I have only one slight difference with my hon. Friend. If the county council is to review its structure plan in relation to the growth plan, that has implications for Horsham council and other councils throughout West Sussex. The Cuckfield and Crawley area having been designated a growth area—Crawley is part of my constituency—I do not believe that growth should be foisted on to other equally desirable parts of West Sussex. But much the most important part of our care, with which my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Sussex and East Grinstead (Sir G. Johnson Smith) agree, is that the regional structure plan should be reviewed once more.

2.7 am

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

There can rarely have been an Adjournment debate in which a trio of such distinguished Sussex Members have participated.

Mr. Hordern

A quartet.

Mr. Gow

No. My hon. Friend should not place me in the category of distinguished Members from Sussex. I support most strongly the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton). It is rather bizarre that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment should represent a Yorkshire constituency, but I am sure that my three hon. Friends will join me in inviting him to visit us in Sussex.

Mr. Hordern


Mr. Gow

My hon. Friend the Member for Horsham and Crawley is right when he says that it should be soon, by which he means before the end of this month.

We should like the Under-Secretary to visit our constituencies, when he would be able to see for himself the truth of what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) described. All over our county we see that from which we have suffered for so long. We see those involved in central Government seeking to impose their presumed superior wisdom over those who live, move and have their being in the constituencies. I am sure that when the Under-Secretary of State replies he will acknowledge the truth, that the man in Whitehall does not always know best.

2.9 am

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Giles Shaw)

I rise fearful of the fact that behind me there are four Horsemen fearing the Apocalypse of uncontrolled growth in the great and good county of Sussex. I hope, however, that what I have to say will give some comfort to my hon. Friends in the line of reasoning that they have so eloquently and jointly presented. In the relatively short time available, I should like to deal with the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton).

My hon. Friend will no doubt remember that the Government's views on the regional strategies were set out in a letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to Lord Nugent in August 1980. That letter set out strategic guidance. The letter is substantially an update of the original regional strategy, to which my hon. Friend referred, laid by a previous Administration some years ago. It is important for my hon. Friends to understand that the regional strategy set some years ago is not of itself the route by which all future planning should flow.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Fox), when he was Under-Secretary of State, answered a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) saying: We are not bound by the regional strategies of previous Governments but we shall take note of them before approving structure plans and we shall in due course arrange for the provision of whatever new or amended regional guidance may be needed as a framework for structure planning."—[Official Report, 11 July 1979; Vol. 970, c. 230.] That view still holds. The position of Sussex has been largely determined by the strategic regional planning of a previous Administration. My right hon. Friend's letter of 7 August 1980 made it clear that he supported the principle of making provision in structure plans for concentrating substantial new developments in identified locations. This principle has been carried through in the approval of some growth areas in the existing structure plans. I take up the point made forcibly by my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham and Crawley (Mr. Hordern) and also by my hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Sir. G. Johnson Smith) about the role of London being so crucial in the development pressures in counties such as Sussex.

In the same letter my right hon. Friend said: New and expanding town schemes have been scaled down or brought to an end. More specifically, London is no longer regarded as a source of population and jobs for other areas. Favourable conditions must be created in London so that private individuals and firms will once more choose to live and invest there. That has been followed by the creation of the Docklands urban development corporation in London, the enterprise zone, the Land Register and all the other measures. We are determined to recycle urban land and to end the automatic assumption that green field site development is the only way to cater for growth.

In the letter of August 1980, my right hon. Friend stated: This Government firmly supports rural conservation, although the degree of restraint must depend on local circumstances. There should continue to be the strongest restraint on development in the Metropolitan Green Belt … Structure plans also set out other approved policies to protect and enhance the region's countryside. The Government share the commitments that my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Sussex, for East Grinstead, for Horsham and Crawley and for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) have so eloquently expressed.

I should like to deal with three aspects raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex which were also contained in the document he supplied to my Department from the Mid-Sussex district council. I take up the point that the regional strategy is out of date and needs reviewing as a matter of urgency. The Government are not bound by the regional strategies of their predecessors. Nor do we believe regional strategies to be an essential part of the planning framework though, from time to time, in some regions, strategic guidance may be called for. The status of the regional strategy is now that of useful historic source material which, as time goes by, will become increasingly out of date at the local level.

The Government's current regional strategic guidance is contained in my right hon. Friend's letter to Lord Nugent. It endorses the concept of growth areas but it does not presuppose the designation of any particular area as a growth area. The need to withdraw Burgess Hill's status as a growth area in the strategy does not, therefore, arise.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's consideration so far of the appropriate level of growth in the Crawley-Burgess Hill area was reflected in his approval of the West Sussex and Surrey structure plans. Further growth may need to be catered for to continue to meet local needs, including the possible consequences of a second terminal at Gatwick, if it is permitted. Whether Crawley or Burgess Hill should remain a growth area in the structure plan—and at what level—is therefore a matter for debate and discussion in the processes leading to the approval of any future alterations to the West Sussex structure plan.

My hon. Friend referred to the possibility of the Surrey towns, particularly Horley, taking their full share of growth. The Surrey structure plan, approved in April 1980, extended the metropolitan green belt over most of Surrey and, though allowing for growth in the towns within the green belt to meet local needs, applied a general policy of restraint. We attach, of course, great importance to the continued protection of the green belt around London. I am sure that all my hon. Friends will endorse that. The green belt did not include Horley and my right hon. Friend, when approving the structure plan, indicated that there was some scope for growth around Horley, and that part of Surrey within the Crawley-Burgess Hill area, but it should be limited and should be on a scale appropriate to satisfy locally generated demand.

Clearly this area will have to make a contribution to meeting future housing demand arising from Crawley-Gatwick, to which it is so closely associated. When West Sussex county council reviews its structure plan on a matter such as this it will necessarily consult its neighbouring planning authorities, including Surrey county council, and this will be the appropriate forum for it to discuss the point that my hon. Friends have made about the relationship between Sussex growth and Surrey taking its share.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex also referred to the sense of injustice that his constituents feel arising from the fact that a disproportionate amount of growth should be directed towards Mid-Sussex and that this will cause damage to the lovely towns of that area and its beautiful countryside. I well understand those anxieties.

Any proposals to change the policies on the scale and location of development included in the West Sussex structure plan will, of course, need to be approved by my right hon. Friend before they become part of the statutory development plan. My hon. Friend will appreciate that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is obviously not bound in any way by the discussion document that I understand has been prepared by the West Sussex county council.

Before any such proposals are approved they will need to go through the statutory procedures, including public consultation. That process ensures that all views, such as those expressed tonight, will be taken into account. I emphasise that it will be open to the Mid-Sussex district council to bring forward any evidence it wishes at the regional, sub-regional or local level at the examination in public, as will be the case for the county council.

In answer to the points made by my hon. Friend, the Government are of course concerned that adequate supplies of housing land are made available in suitable locations. It will no doubt be necessary for further provision to be made in West Sussex. But I should like to reassure my hon. Friend that we have no preconceived ideas about the scale of this or its location. We are conscious of, and indeed appreciate, the effort that has been made by Mid-Sussex district council and the important contribution that it has made, not only to meeting the needs of its own area but to meeting the needs of other parts of the county and indeed the region.

I hope that I have been able to reassure my hon. Friends tonight that when my right hon. Friend comes to consider any proposals put to him by West Sussex county council he will listen very carefully to all the arguments with an open mind.

I also reassure my hon. Friend that the regional strategy was never more than an advisory, and was not a mandatory, document. At the outset its advice should have been heeded, but its influence has diminished over time. As a consequence, following my right hon. Friend's letter, it is not necessary for it to be reviewed as has been suggested. As I said earlier, the letter endorses the concept of growth areas, but it does not presuppose the designation of such areas. It seems to me that a review of the structure plan for West Sussex, and possibly Surrey, might be the better route by which to resolve the local objections that my hon. Friends have raised and to reduce the local anxieties that my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Sussex, Horsham and Crawley, East Grinstead and, above all, Eastbourne have skilfully drawn to the attention of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Two o' clock.