HC Deb 18 November 1983 vol 48 cc1154-62

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

2.44 pm
Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

We move from one issue that arouses strong feelings to another—the green belt. The concept of the green belt developed in the immediate pre-war and post-war years. It envisaged a broad belt of land around London and other conurbations which would remain rural in character and in which neither industrial nor residential development would be allowed.

The term "green belt" is also used to refer to areas and pockets of green land in the outer suburbs—commons, parks, playing fields and open spaces which together form what is often referred to as a green chain.

My constituency lies quite close to the green belt. It is an amenity which we value greatly. The constituency contains many of the open spaces and woodlands to which I referred and they are features which give the area its attractive and rural character. My constituents value the green belt and guard it jealously, and I know that that feeling is shared by the constituents of many hon. Members from various parts of the country.

The concept of the green belt has been supported by Governments of all colours since the war. The Department of the Environment recently issued draft circular X/83 entitled "Memorandum on Structure and Local Plans and Green Belt". It appears to confirm green belt policy. Paragraph 11 states: the Government continue to attach great importance to the use of Green Belts to contain the sprawl of built-up areas and to safeguard the neighbouring countryside from encroachment and there must continue to be a general presumption against any inappropriate development within them. That view was confirmed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in an accompanying press release, which said: The Government remains committed to the continuing protection of the green belts. The Secretary of State told the town and country planning summer school on 9 September: Let there be no mistake. I am as committed as any of my predecessors to preserving a strong, clear Green Belt policy. On 24 October, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment wrote to me: I can assure you that our Green Belt policy remains firm … There must continue to be a general presumption against any inappropriate development within them". There has been some anxiety about the implications of the building of the M25 and it was, therefore, encouraging to see in a draft letter from the Secretary of State to the chairman of the standing conference on London and south-east regional planning the following words: The general presumption against development in the Green Belt is not affected by the M25, and there should continue to be the strongest restraint on development there. All those protestations about the green belt were reinforced a few days ago when the Secretary of State told a conference of the National Development Control Forum: I am as committed as any of my predecessors to a strong green belt policy. The draft circular reaffirms the objectives set on previous occasions. Yet, in the light of all that, the green belt is seen to be under threat by many organisations, including the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, the National Farmers Union, the Civic Trust and the three local authority associations.

The press has indulged in speculation. The Observer carried the headline: The rape of the belt. The Daily Mail said of the circular: Pockets of green belt land within built-up areas could be released for building. Among areas likely to be affected are Surrey, Berkshire, Gloucestershire, West Yorkshire and, particularly semi-suburban areas round London like Hendon, Hillingdon, Uxbridge, Chislehurst and Croydon. Conservationists also fear completion of the M25 round London will lead to great pressure on councils to allow development near it. Fears have been voiced by a number of my hon. Friends in the House and by the London borough of Bromley, which has passed a resolution inviting the Minister to withdraw the circular. Residents associations, of which there are several active in my constituency, have made their concern clear and I have been almost overwhelmed by letters from constituents expressing anxiety.

Why is the threat apparent? First, the circular refers to the possibility of modifying the green belt and not including within it land which it is unnecessary to keep permanently open for the purpose of a green belt. Secondly, there is another draft circular, also confusingly numbered X/83, entitled "Land for Housing" dated 12 July. The theme of that circular is the need for local authorities to make available a supply of land for housing for at least five years. It is a detailed circular, and I shall not go into its detail, but it is worthy of note that it contains no reference to "green belt". The words do not appear anywhere in the circular. The presumption in the circular is in favour of development. Its implication is that when an application is made for land to be developed permission should be given unless there are strong planning reasons why it should not.

All that must be taken with another paragraph in the first circular to which I referred, which reads: When detailed Green Belt boundaries are defined in local plans authorities should satisfy themselves that adequate provision is made for long term development needs". That, seen in conjunction with other material from which I have quoted, makes one begin to understand the anxiety voiced about the future of green belt land.

In addition, for many months, if not for years, builders — particularly the House Builders Federation — have been pressing for more land to be released for house building. In a letter to The Daily Telegraph on 23 September the president of the federation, Mr. Peter Woodrow, said specifically: Green Belts must be loosened and moved outwards. The Minister will know of publicity about certain building consortia which have plans to build what they describe as "new villages" in country areas round London, some in the green belt. The evidence is that the consortia are already seeking to open negotiations to buy land.

Either the Government have every intention of maintaining their green belt policy and the wording and implications of the circulars have been misinterpreted or misunderstood, or there is a gigantic confidence trick and the Department of the Environment and the builders are conniving to pull the wool over our eyes.

I know the Secretary of State to be a man of integrity. I have no reason to doubt the genuineness of his assurances, but many people are very suspicious, for the reasons that I have explained, and I want to establish beyond doubt what is the Government's policy on the green belt.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for attending the debate and being ready to reply to it, especially as I know he has had a heavy week of ministerial meetings on the continent. I want to ask him several questions, and I hope that his answers will put to rest all the suspicions that I have voiced.

Why was the circular issued at all and why is there a reference in it to the green belt?

Why was the circular issued when it was, quite soon after the general election? This is a factor to which some people have attached special significance.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that he and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will not permit the building of so-called new villages in the green belt?

When considering whether to approve modified local plans, will my hon. Frien ensure that wherever possible when land is removed from green belt classification there are compensatory additions, and will he refuse approval where this is not the case?

There is a point of view that the green belt is sacrosanct and that in no way should the green belt, laid down 30 or 40 years ago, be altered. I can understand that it may be that there are areas on the edge of the green belt or pockets of land which circumstances have changed and which may no longer be so appropriately marked green belt, but if local plans suggest that certain such pockets be removed from green belt designation there should at least be compensating areas added to the green belt. In a local plan recently deposited, my own borough, the London borough of Bromley, is suggesting the removal of one pocket of land from the green belt but the addition of some six areas to it. This is what I hope the Minister will insist happens.

Once local authorities have had their plans approved, will my hon. Friend give cast-iron assurances that, whenever the local authority refuses an application to develop on green belt land, he will uphold the local authority on appeal?

To avoid misunderstandings, will my hon. Friend withdraw the draft in its present form and reissue it with wording which incorporates the assurances for which I have asked?

Finally, can my hon. Friend confirm meanwhile that these are draft circulars and that until they are issued in definitive form, both the local authorities and the inspectors should deal with planning applications and appeals in accordance with the present guidelines and not anticipate any new circulars?

I have asked my hon. Friend a great many questions, but I hope he appreciates that the issue I have raised is very important to many people. I hope that he can answer my questions and give assurances in terms that will allay many people's fears.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) for raising this matter today. Clearly it is one of great importance. My hon. Friend has asked me many questions, and I have much that I wish to say in reply.

Green belt is one of the most notable achievements in our planning. Green belt policies have always enjoyed popular support. They have been with Ls for many years and are the envy of many western nations. I can appreciate the apprehension with which any proposal for new advice may be greeted. I therefore welcome the opportunity of this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on the constructive way in which he introduced the debate.

Government policy on green belts was set out as long ago as 1955. We made it clear in our circular on development control in 1980 that we continued to attach great importance to maintaining them. We still do. There in no change. Let there be no mistake, the Government's concern is entirely to reinforce the propel use of green belt policy.

As my hon. Friend will be the first to acknowledge, our record is good. Since May 1979 we have approved 44 structure plans in England and 34 now include green belt. Many incorporate major extensions to the green belts approved in old development plans. The metropolitan green belt around London—a matter of interest to my hon. Friend with his Chistlehurst interests — has increased by about 45 per cent. and now covers 1.2 million acres. Elsewhere there are now approved green belts in many areas—the west midlands, Merseyside and greater Manchester, and Tyne and Wear. There are also green belts around York, Nottingham and Oxford, while others separate Cheltenham from Gloucester, Burton from Swadlincote, Lancaster from Carnforth and the towns along the Fylde coast.

I am talking here about approved green belts, approved in structure plans. Some other areas, mostly on the outer edge of the approved green belts, were also proposed for inclusion but were not in fact incorporated into the green belts as finally approved. This was because it was not necessary to include those areas to meet the purposes of the green belt, and in some cases because further thought needed to be given, in preparing local plans, to the provision to be made for development. In some cases, while the areas were not included in the approved green belt, other policies were approved to regulate future development and conserve the countryside.

We must not forget that there are many other areas of restraint and countryside protection, most notably the areas of outstanding natural beauty and our national parks. There should be no misunderstanding about this. We are fully committed to the protection of all these areas and determined that the safeguarding policies which have been approved in structure plans, and through other methods, will be maintained.

There is also the role of the planning system to ensure that there is adequate provision of land for new development—for industry, for housing and for many other needs. The Government wish to encourage home ownership and to bring this within the reach of as many people as possible. It is also of vital importance that planning policies should promote, not hinder, the regeneration of British industry. If we are to create the jobs that we need, positive planning policies are essential. The planning system will not serve its proper purpose if it becomes solely concerned with conservation and fails to make proper provision for future development. In the past it has performed this dual function successfully, and it is essential that it should continue to do so.

In our election manifesto we said: In our crowded country the planning system has to strike a delicate balance. It must provide for the homes and workplaces we need. It must protect the environment in which we live. Planning is a matter of striking this difficult balance in a sensible way. The town and country planning system must operate in the interests of the community at large.

If I cannot answer all my hon. Friend's specific questions in the time available, I will write to him. He asked why the draft circulars were published so soon after the election. The answer is that we felt that new policy advice was needed and that ample time should be allowed for consultation. Indeed, we decided not only to issue the drafts for consultation with the local authority associations and others in the usual way, but to publish them widely so that all those interested could see what we proposed to say on these subjects and to have the opportunity to comment. We fully expected that the House might want to debate these topics, and there was no question of issuing the advice in its final form until that widest opportunity had occurred.

My hon. Friend referred to the housing land circular. That circular not only emphasises the key role of the planning system in meeting demand for housing, but stresses the Government's commitment to preserving good agricultural land and areas of special amenity, which of course include green belt. The objectives of the draft circular are to ensure that the planning system delivers an adequate and efficient supply of land suitable for new houses. I stress that "suitable" means sites that are suitable for development, having regard to the other planning policies, including, of course, those concerned with conservation.

We also stress in the circular that full use must be made of sites within urban areas, including derelict land, land register sites and other neglected urban sites. It is all there is the draft circular, and we attach great importance to this theme of recycling urban land to reduce the pressures on undeveloped land.

My hon. Friend referred to reports in some newspapers about proposals by developers to build 12 new villages. That causes genuine concern in constituencies such as his and mine. It is for the promoters, essentially, to pursue their ideas with the local planning authorities concerned. They are all fully aware of the development control policies that apply within green belts. My hon. Friend will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment further as it is possible, if any such proposals are pursued, that they will come to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on appeal.

My hon. Friend raised a number of points about the draft green belt circular. Frankly, when I hear some of the reactions to the draft circular, I wonder whether everyone has been reading the same document. There is truth in my hon. Friend's suggestion that the wording and implications of the circular have been misinterpreted. There must be no misunderstanding. The Government are committed to preserving a strong, clear green belt policy. The draft circular makes that plain. What we are considering is the definition of boundaries in local plans. We want to be sure that clearly defined, defensible long-term boundaries are established. That is because the essential characteristic of green belt is its permanence. If these boundaries are to be achieved, adequate allowance must be made in suitable areas for development needs.

That advice goes back to 1957 when circular 50/57 advised authorities to choose a suitable boundary along roads, streams … or other features that can be readily recognised on the ground and to set out their policy for pockets of land, between the town and the green belt which are not to be developed within the present plan period but which could be developedd without prejudice to the green belt … to include them in the green belt for the time being might give rise to difficulties and undermine public confidence in the green belt at a later date if it were then decided to allocate the land for development". We must recognise, however, that there is a need for a new emphasis. Now that approved green belts have become so extensive and the preparation of local plans is now in progress, the policy must be reinforced and strengthened. That is why we believe that we need a new circular. During the 1980s it is expected that some 700 local plans will be adopted by English local authorities. Many of them will include green belt boundaries. In some areas, boundaries approved in old development plans will be carried forward. In other areas, new boundaries are needed to reflect the extensions of approved green belt in structure plans and the consideration of areas previously approved on an "interim" basis.

If strict restraint is to continue to apply within greem belts and if they are to remain a permanent feature of our planning system, we must make adequate provision in suitable areas for the legitimate needs of the cities that gave rise to the need for green belts, and for many of the towns now enclosed within green belts. In some cases, of course, part of the need can be met within the inner city. I do not need to remind my hon. Friend of the importance that we attach to some of the innovative ideas to resuscitate inner cities that we have pursued in the past four years. In other cases, provision will need to be found beyond the green belt. There will also be cases where the green belt is particularly extensive and where provision will need to be made in towns surrounded by green belt.

My hon. Friend referred to the removal of land from the green belt. The draft circular emphasises that the broad areas of green belt established in structure plans should be altered only exceptionally. I want to emphasise what my right hon. Friend has already said in response to questions—that there is no suggestion that green belt boundaries should be redrawn where they have already been established in local plans. I give my hon. Friend the clear assurance that once a green belt is approved in a structure plan or adopted in a local plan or has been formally approved in an old development plan, it should be altered only in exceptional circumstances. If such an alteration were proposed, my right hon. Friend would wish to be satisfied that the authority had fully considered opportunities for development within the urban areas contained by and beyond the green belt.

As I said earlier, the essential characteristic of green belts is their permanence and their protection must be long-term. It follows that, in defining detailed green belt boundaries in local plans, authorities must consider them over a longer time scale than approved structure plans. So, while making provision for future development in conformity with the policies and proposals of the structure plan, they must additionally ensure that the boundaries do not need to be altered in the foreseeable future.

My hon. Friend also referred to development control within the green belt and the Government's policy on appeals. The policy laid down in the local government circular 42/55 is that approval should not be given, except in very special circumstances, for the construction or new buildings of for the change of use of existing buildings for purposes other than agriculture, sport, cemeteries, institutions standing in extensive grounds, or other uses appropriate to a rural area. Few policies have been as well supported as this one. It has been applied by all subsequent Governments, including the present one. The draft circular proposes to reaffirm it strongly. As to appeals, my hon. Friend will appreciate that my right hon. Friend must consider all planning applications on their merits, having regard to the provision of the development plan and other material considerations such as this policy. As circular 22/80 makes plain, there must continue to be a general presumption against inappropriate development on green belts.

I have referred to the needs of development, but we also have to ensure a positive approach to the use of green belt land and its management. One of the problems often raised, and raised by many who have commented on the draft circular, is that green belt land exists, particularly on the inner edges of many green belts, in a poorly managed state. Sometimes it is vacant or underused. Some is agricultural land which has been blighted by continuing uncertainty. I agree entirely with these comments. Land which it is necessary to keep open for the purposes of the green belt must be protected from pressures of development by firm development control policies. Well-defined boundaries are important. They give landowners the necessary confidence to improve their land. When preparing plans, authorities should examine areas suffering from disuse and neglect or from a low standard of land management. It is important to take steps to secure their improvement. Policies to ensure that land is maintained in, or brought into, effective use for agriculture, recreation and amenity should be implemented by means of local plans. This is a positive approach to green belts which has been somewhat neglected in the past and to which I shall want to give a new emphasis.

The draft circular was issued—I emphasise again that it was a draft circular, and I hope that that will confirm my hon. Friend's most important question—because many local planning authorities are now preparing local plans in which the broad green belt policies approved in structure plans are being translated into detailed boundaries.

Local plans are concerned not only with restrictive policies, but with the provisions that need to be made for development, consistent with planning policies in the approved structure plan. That is an important dimension in this context. The advice in the draft circular is timely and necessary. The draft circulars were published because, as I said, we felt that advice was needed, but we wanted to allow ample time for comment. We took the unusual step of publishing them at large rather than through normal official channels of consultation—recognised channels of contact such as local authority organisations—and other organisations and groups. The draft circulars went to a much wider audience than ever before.

If there were to be any proposals for major developments in a green belt — for example a new village, to come back to that important point on which I understand my hon. Friend's anxiety—that would be a major departure and would be likely to lead to an appeal or would represent a departure from the approved structure plan or an alteration of it. All these plans would come to my right hon. Friend to be dealt with under his statutory powers, in a quasi-judicial role.

No proposals on those lines can be made directly to my Department. They have to be pursued through the normal legal statutory route. Any proposed major alterations to green belts in approved structure plans—I do not know of any such proposals — would need my right hon. Friend's approval, and he would examine any such proposals carefully, and any associated proposals including possible extensions to the green belt. My hon. Friend knows that he would always have an opportunity to discuss that fully if it were to affect his constituency or a neighbouring area.

It would be wrong to lay down any cast-iron rules or total guarantees about how future planning appeals would be dealt with. Both local planning authorities, in dealing with planning applications, and my right hon. Friend in dealing with appeals, must have regard both to the development plan and any other material considerations. Our general policy on green belts is clear; we want them to be strongly maintained, and to that end we have to ensure that they are well conceived both in broad policy terms and in their detailed application. That is what the draft circular says, and it means what it says.

I assure my hon. Friend that we are reviewing the text of the final draft circular. We shall be taking into account all the many valuable comments received so far, including the important and constructive speech of my hon. Friend today. I am certain that both his speech and my reply, as so often happens on these occasions, will be read by a far wider audience, given its interest. Many draft circulars are revised as a result of such consultation and that is why we went to the widest audience, which does not always happen. These two draft circulars on housing and the green belt will be no exception. As a result of the views that I have received, changes will be made.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Three o'clock.