HC Deb 23 June 1983 vol 44 cc257-62

10 pm

Mr. Richard Needham (North Wiltshire)

First, Mr. Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to congratulate you on your new office, to say how grateful I am to you for the kindness that you showed me in the past when you were Deputy Speaker and to hope that with some luck I may continue on the odd occasion to catch your eye.

Secondly, I apologise to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment who has to answer, as it were out of the blue, this debate on what to me and my constituents is a very important matter. I also thank my other hon. Friends who have remained in the Chamber on this great occasion to listen to this significant debate affecting the people of north Wiltshire.

The expansion of Thamesdown into my constituency is a microcosm of the Government's dilemma over planning and mobility. As my hon. Friend the Minister well knows, in the 1930s when old industries such as cotton and coalmining declined new industries grew up, especially in the west midlands. Indeed, I believe that about 5 million new jobs were created between 1929 and 1935 in areas in which there had not been much industrial development previously. That occurred because planning laws and restrictions were not as they are now. A similar problem faces us today, in that many of the industries created in the 1930s are now declining and we are looking to the development of new technologies and new employment to replace them.

Swindon and the area surrounding it is one of the great growth areas in the south of England down the boom valley of the M4. Those living and working in Swindon must feel confident in their town and its achievements, and it is rightly placed. Those living outside Swindon, in the small towns and villages of my constituency, however, do not take the same view of the expansion of Thamesdown as those who live within it. To them, the ever-creeping skyline of never-ending boxes represents as much of a threat as the lava currently cascading down mount Etna must represent to those living beneath it. When, they ask themselves, will it stop? Will it perhaps spread somewhere else? Can someone plant a bomb to divert its path?

In the view of my constituents, the only bomb that could be planted is what might be called a green belt, and I must admit that that is increasingly my own view. Unless there is agreement about the development of Thamesdown within its own boundaries, unless the Secretary of State is prepared clearly to show that Thamesdown can develop sensibly without destroying the atmosphere and environment of the towns and villages around Swindon, I believe that a green belt should be instituted.

The growth of Swindon has not been that which the town wanted, although it has been very much greater than that which most of the rest of the country wanted. Most of the growth has been westwards; most of it has been taking up farmland and expanding nearer and nearer to the town of Wootton Bassett, the villages of Purton and the Lydiards, and finally towards Cricklade.

The council of Thamesdown has always been equivocal in its approach to development. It appears on occasion to give undertakings that it has sufficient land. For example, I have a letter from the chief executive of Thamesdown, dated 7 February, in which he first says that The Borough Council would not consider the creation of a green belt around the western development area to be a suitable means of directing and controlling Swindon's expansion, and would be opposed to such a proposal". However, the chief executive goes on to say that The Borough Council has no other proposals for major development outside the Borough boundaries during the Plan period to 1991 … It is envisaged that the majority of further develpment of Swindon for some years after 1991 will be within the Borough boundaries to the north of Swindon". I emphasise to the Minister the use of the words the majority of further development of Swindon". But, of course, in saying that, there is no guarantee, that there will not be further planning permission sought nearer to the villages concerned.

An intolerable strain is placed on most of the people who live in the area. They do not know how they can continue to live in surroundings which most of them have known for generation after generation. They have no idea what will happen to the value of their houses, or of the sort of environment to which they can look forward. The position has not altogether been helped by the fact that Thamesdown recently put in an objection to the north Wiltshire district plan, asking for permission relating to a further chunk of land in a small area on North Wiltshire. That was immediately after the Secretary of State had agreed the changes suggested by the Boundary Commission.

The Government cannot simply stand aloof from the problems that such expansion causes. They cannot stand aloof from taking some responsibility, for example, for determining the level of infrastructure that needs to be provided. Thamesdown district council, because it can develop under its own auspices, puts an enormous strain, as a result of that development, on the services of the county council. New schools and roads have to be provided. There is a strong feeling in the rest of Wiltshire that schools, roads and other social service facilities that should be provided by Wiltshire are precluded by the growth of Thamesdown. Therefore, there is a constant fight between Thamesdown council, whoever its political masters may be, and the Wiltshire county council, whoever its political masters may be.

There is further conflict between the council of north Wiltshire and the Thamesdown council, because north Wiltshire and its representatives have an interest in protecting their environment and the quality of life in their area, while Swindon necessarily wants to maximise on its growth to replace the industries that are dying, and to try to bring as much new employment to the town as it can.

I do not think that it is right for the Government simply to say, "We have set the overall pattern within the structure plan and it is up to you to fight it out between you." That must lead to expensive inquiries, and we all know how expensive public inquiries can be. It must lead to a great deal of time wasting for officials, producing county papers, rejoinders and surrejoinders. It means that new industry that might want to come to these areas cannot be certain of findong land at a reasonable price.

For example, when I first became an hon. Member, the price of industrial land in Swindon was £50,000 to £60,000 an acre, but it is now £150,000 to £160,000 an acre. The price of industrial land in Chippenham was £30,000 an acre, but it is now £80,000 to £90,000 an acre. It is no good today believing that having no planning restrictions and allowing development to take place on an ad hoc basis will be accepted by the communities that live there. They will not stand for it and they are right not to do so.

I understand that the Minister cannot answer all the points that I have made, partly because the review of the structure plans does not take place until next year and it is up to the county council to undertake that review. Nevertheless, it is worth bringing this matter to the attention of the House because of the point of principle that it raises over the implementation of green belts. There are those who believe that the implementation of green belts will end all their problems and once they get that the rest of expansion of towns such as Swindon will be stopped for the foreseeable future. There are small village and town councils that are asking their ratepayers to put considerable sums of money aside to fight publicly for a green belt. I asked for this debate because I should like the Minister to explain to the House and through the House to the people of north Wiltshire the position about green belts. What is the Government's view in general about green belts around such towns as Thamesdown? If the Government's overall position is not in favour of the green belt, what do they suggest should be done to protect these villages and communities from constant expansion? Do they think that they can foresee that there is sufficient land, as is claimed by many, already within Thamesdown to enable Thamesdown to develop for the foreseeable future? If that is the case, we can all be put out of our misery by being told so.

The concern of all of us who deal with this problem is that not only will uncertainty lead to planning blight and development that is not what the community wants and that is not altogether practicable but that the villages and small towns of which I have spoken will come to be to Swindon what the Hammersmiths and Edgwares have come to be to London. It is that concern that I ask the Minister to understand, and on which I ask him to give me what assurances he can.

10.14 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham) for raising this matter this evening, and I assure him that he has no need to apologise for so doing, as he did at the outset of his remarks, because this is clearly a subject of great importance to his constituents. As a close neighbour of his, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in that part of England, you will understand some of the problems facing my hon. Friend. This is the second time in about three hours that my hon. Friend has been on his feet in the Chamber, and his constituents can rest easy, as he is certainly looking after their interests most diligently in this new Parliament. This was clearly reflected in his increased majority after being the hon. Member for Chippenham for four years and now as the hon. Member for Wiltshire, North.

I well understand the problems which can occur for these rural communities which are close to a large town or large city which is expanding, and it is not difficult to understand the natural fears of those local residents who feel that their villages inevitably will be engulfed in a built-up area.

Speculation about development always causes apprehension wherever it is. It causes apprehension about how much development will take place, where it will be situated and how the ancillary services are to support the new communities. It is often fanned by irresponsible media speculation.

My remarks to my hon. Friend clearly will not answer all the important points that he has registered. I shall ensure in the fullness of time that some development of the questions that he has posed to me is made. But I appreciate the problems fully.

My hon. Friend said that the position had to be seen in the wider context of the history of Swindon's expansion. In 1953, Swindon was designated an expanding town under the Town Development Act. By 1960, some 3,800 houses had been constructed for London overspill families and key workers from elsewhere. That is no new phenomenon in other parts of England. During the next 20 years, the town expanded greatly and, since local government reorganisation in 1974, Thamesdown borough council has continued the expansion programme. Population and employment have both continued to expand.

Despite the recent pause in economic growth, Swindon has a sound long-term economic potential. Advantageously situated on the national communications network, Swindon is well placed to benefit from national economic growth and to take advantage of opportunities arising from our membership of the European Community. It also has potential for considerable growth in the commercial and service sectors. As my hon. Friend will know better than anyone in the House, Swindon's advantages have been recognised by several nationally and internationally-known companies which have developed factories or offices, and major Government research offices have moved there as part of the plans for dispersal from London. The Science and Engineering research council and the Natural Environmental research council are also located there alongside some multinational organisations.

Successive Governments have welcomed the programme of planned expansion at Swindon and have supported the local planning authority's policies of encouraging growth at Swindon and restraining it in the rest of the north-east Wiltshire area. For economic and conservation reasons, it has been decided that little or no growth should be permitted to occur on the Marlborough downs or in the Cotswolds to the west, but that most of the population increase of the area should be accommodated in a westward extension of Swindon. This view is embodied in the north-east Wiltshire structure plan which was approved in November 1981. I paint that as part of the background to the situation facing my hon. Friend. The structure plan provides for Swindon's continued growth. It provides for 310 hectares of industrial and warehousing land in or adjacent to Swindon. Office provision is 134,700 sq m in Swindon central area and 197,000 sq m in other parts of Swindon. The housing provision to 1991 is up to 17,800 new dwellings.

Where future development should take place was discussed at the examination in public. Following consideration of the report of the panel which conducted the examination, my right hon. Friend modified the plan to make it clear that the majority of the new housing proposed should be located adjoining the western edge of the Swindon urban area—a policy which, incidentally, was challenged by a local firm of developers but upheld subsequently by the High Court.

The possible designation of a green belt between Thamesdown borough council's boundary and the settlements of Wootton Bassett, Cricklade and Purton may well be seen by my hon. Friend's constituents as the solution to their problems. But there are other ways of protecting vulnerable villages by means of restraint policies which, where appropriate, may also allow for a limited amount of growth. The solution for this area clearly will need to be determined in the context of any proposed alteration to the north-east Wiltshire structure plan.

It may be appropriate for me to say a few words at this juncture about the Government's general policy towards the establishment of green belts and the needs of development. The policy on green belts was set out as long ago as 1955, and we confirmed this in our circular on development control in 1980.

The purpose of a green belt is to check the unrestricted sprawl of built-up areas and to prevent the coalescence of neighbouring towns. Green belts also safeguard the neighbouring countryside from encroachment.

If green belts are to be successful, protection from development must be long term. Therefore, there must continue to be a general presumption against inappropriate development within them. Inside a green belt, development is not allowed, except in very special circumstances, or for uses suitable for a rural area such as agriculture and sport. Villages inside a green belt are not allowed to expand further, apart from a strictly limited amount of infilling, or rounding off.

The broad areas on the green belt are identified in structure plans which are approved by my right hon. Friend. Since May 1979, we have approved 43 structure plans and many of these contain green belts. The detailed boundaries of green belts are determined in local plans, which are adopted by local authorities, and many of these are now in preparation.

Policies for restraint are important, but of course one of the tasks of our planning system is to make provision for necessary development. When considering proposals for green belt, it is always necessary to be sure that adequate provision for development is made in suitable areas for long-term growth, and that a green belt is clearly justified by the local circumstances, otherwise the approach will be devalued.

Finally on this more general point, I should explain that the definition of a green belt could take place in this instance only in the context of an alteration to the northeast Wiltshire structure plan, the approval of which would have to follow the procedures laid down in the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. These are broadly the same as those that were followed in the approval of the current plan.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I said something about the procedures, because they provide opportunities for all concerned to be involved and to express their point of view. This is important for my hon. Friend and his constituents in those villages. Once the county council has prepared proposals for alteration, it must consult the general public, district councils and other bodies. It must then consider the views put to it before submitting the plan to my right hon. Friend. Once the plan has been submitted, it is placed on deposit and a period of six weeks is allowed for objections. The Secretary of State will then consider whether an examination in public is necessary to inform him more fully about the issues raised. If an examination in public is held, it will be into selected issues, and participants will be invited to contribute to the discussion.

The Secretary of State will consider the report of the panel and may propose modifications. If modifications are proposed these will be open to objection, and the Secretary of State will consider those objections before reaching a final decision on the plan. I hope that this explanation will serve to reassure my hon. Friend's constituents that should the county council propose alterations to the structure plan there will be ample opportunity for these anxieties to be fully expressed and carefully considered by both the county council and my right hon. Friend.

In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend for drawing these difficulties to my attention. It has been the most important exchange that we have had this evening. I am sure that the Wiltshire county council will give serious consideration to any case which is made out to it for the alteration of the structure plan to include a green belt to the west of Swindon or otherwise to protect the rural areas my hon. Friend's constituency. I have outlined some of the general policy considerations that hang up on some of the problems facing my hon. Friend's constituents. They need to be taken into account in the designation of a green belt, certainly, and I—and, I am sure, my Department—stand ready to offer any further advice and assistance in this respect. The door is open if my hon. Friend wishes to discuss the matter further.

My hon. Friend will recognise that many issues have to be resolved. We have to look at a number of subjects and topics which hang upon the matters that we have discussed this evening. I hope that my hon. Friend will be patient for a few more months, and if he wants a further dialogue to reassure his constituents I hope he will consider that I and my Department's officials are ready to help in any way that we can.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past Ten o'clock.