HC Deb 14 November 1986 vol 105 cc285-90

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

2.30 pm
Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

I am grateful for the opportunity to draw attention to an important stretch of land which, in a local development plan of the London borough of Hounslow, has been formally proposed as green belt, but which is now under threat from a planning application for a massive so-called theme park. That is most deeply resented and strongly opposed by large numbers of my constituents in Hampton, as well as by Hanworth constituents of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Ground) who, I hope, will catch your eye Mr. Deputy Speaker; and by Kempton Park and Sunbury constituents of my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Sir H. Atkins). All three of us are implacably opposed to this monstrous proposal.

The land, 187 acres between Hampton, Hanworth and Kempton Park, consists of two former reservoirs surrounded by open green fields. That green and open character is highly valued by those of my constituents who live on the west side of Hampton, in Hatherop Park, Hampton Nurserylands estate and surrounding areas. Some people look out at the green fields from their houses. Others use them for walks, sports or games or to enjoy the wildlife. Above all, what matters is that those who live in built-up areas are conscious of the existence of green open spaces and that they are nearby.

The owner, Thames Water, has for years let the public on to that green land, but has no further use for it and wants to dispose of it. Hounslow council proposed it as green belt in its west area plan. In a sense, that reflects the existing use. However, this July, while awaiting the expected approval by the Secretary of State for the Environment of Hounslow's green belt proposal, my constituents in Hampton were shocked to be faced with a planning application that could put on to the proposed green belt a theme park with capacity for 28,000 visitors daily. The green fields would be covered with car parks with spaces for 7,000 cars and 250 buses, and there would be a monorail. It would mean extra traffic on already congested local roads, fumes, noise and loss of open space.

I am told that the theme park would demonstrate Britain's heritage in a themed area in a simulated and authentic environment. We are not told why we should want a simulated heritage when we have the real thing one and a half miles away at Hampton Court palace.

I ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment to take note of the tremendous extent of strong feelings against the proposal, as measured so far by over 1,450 letters of objection received by Hounslow council from about 750 people. There is some overlap, as some people have written both to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston and myself and perhaps to a local authority as well. Over 1,500 people have attended four protest meetings, two of which I chaired and each with between 400 and 600 people present. One was on the green field site, and was held on 28 July and the other was at Rectory school, Hampton on 8 September. I also presented a petition with 2,200 signatures to the House on Friday 25 July, the day that we rose for the recess. I have never before encountered such unanimous and massive opposition to a planning proposal.

The application now has to go straight to a public inquiry prior to a decision by the Secretary of State for the Environment. Hounslow council was expected to decide on planning permission on 4 December. However, last week the developers dodged an almost certain refusal by Hounslow council on a technicality, on the grounds that Hounslow did not take a decision within eight weeks of the submission of the application early in July. Of course, it would hardy have been feasible to have done that and have full public consultation at that time of year.

The developer has invoked a legal right to jump the local planning authorities and appeal on grounds of non-determination to the Secretary of State who now has, as I understand it, no choice but to decide himself, presumably taking into account the advice of an inquiry inspector.

Obviously, the developers feared a refusal by Hounslow, although they could have appealed anyhow. This overt funk by the developer is a moral victory for my constituents who are opposed to the scheme, and this will no doubt be noted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment—who, incidentally, when he was Secretary of State for Transport showed a welcome concern for the environment on the western side of Hampton by refusing a fifth terminal at Heathrow and by stopping the Heathrow to Gatwick helicopter link.

I know that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary is not free to comment on the arguments for and against the planning application on a piece of land intended for green belt since Ministers, as if judges, must be impartial and cannot prejudge. I know that my constituents in Hampton will understand that. However, I ask three things of my hon. Friend. First, will he confirm that his Department has received and is giving consideration to the petition that I tabled in the House on 25 July. Secondly, will he confirm today that he, the Secretary of State and the Minister of State will take careful note of the great strength of feeling against the theme park as measured by the figures that I gave a few minutes ago? Thirdly, as so many of my constituents are anxious about the possible loss of open green fields in this proposed green belt, will my hon. Friend see what can be done to speed up the public inquiry and the decision of the Secretary of State so that the uncertainty can be ended and, I hope, the minds of my constituents set at rest?

Last month, the Minister said about the green belt that: Planning is about the right things in the right place. This is the wrong thing in the wrong place, and I hope that the Secretary of State will shoot it down decisively.

2.38 pm
Mr. Patrick Ground (Feltham and Heston)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) for allowing me this opportunity to participate in the debate and I support all that he has said. I very much welcome the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on Wednesday, when he made it clear that the Government stand firm by the policy that there should be no development on the green belt except in very special circumstances or for agricultural or other uses appropriate to a rural area. I welcome his statement that the green belt will not be taken over by shopping malls and leisure complexes.

Nowhere is such a firm policy more needed than in west London where pressures for development are great and the green belt is extremely vulnerable. All around London the green belt is currently the subject of an extraordinary series of inappropriate planning applications and appeals involving 100-acre shopping precincts, virtual mini-towns and very large housing estates. The proposal to which my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham has referred would involve 180-odd acres with a massive development and expenditure of more than 100 million. If the proposal were allowed. 7,000 cars and 250 coaches would be expected to park next door to the local school, and a Disneyland would be constructed on a very narrow section of land clearly shown by the planning authority in the west area local plan as green belt land.

Most of the proposals to which I have referred are entirely at variance with the local and structure plans prepared by the planning authorities. The present practice of the Department of the Environment when proposals go to appeal is that the plans must be considered in detail by the local planning authorities, the highway implications must be assessed, elaborate planning conditions have to be worked out, many hours must be spent agreeing data with developers' consultants and elaborate proofs of evidence have to be prepared. This results in long public inquiries and delays while inspectors produce lengthy reports which are then studied by the Department. Meanwhile, local communities are left for long periods of uncertainty with the feeling that they are living under threat.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham, I have received an enormous number of letters expressing such feelings and I have attended public meetings at which horror has been expressed at the proposals. If the Minister's policy is clear and accord with the local authority plan while the proposed development is plainly at variance with that policy, why should there be such inordinate delay and expense? The planning Acts provide a means of challenging the contents of local and structure plans and reviewing existing plans, but they were never intended to produce endless appeals challenging basic policies earmarking certain areas as green belt. When a proposal plainly conflicts with the development plan, the Minister has power under section 36(7) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 to decline to determine the appeal or to proceed with the determination. A similar power has existed since 1947 but has never been used by the Minister responsible for planning.

I believe that the time has come for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider exercising that right when a proposal plainly conflicts with the local plan or structure plan—unless the applicant can show good reason why the plan should be reviewed at a planning inquiry rather than by the means provided in the Act for reviewing the plans themselves. I hope that the Secretary of State will consider exercising that right when a development would plainly conflict with the green belt allocation in a local plan. I also hope that he will use every means to ensure that this appeal and other green belt appeals are dealt with as early as possible so that uncertainty and the threat to the green belt can be removed as quickly as possible.

2.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Richard Tracey)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) on initiating this debate on green belt policy. His interest has been sparked off by the Kempton park waterworks site. There continues to be a good deal of concern about pressures for development and about the future of the green belt, so I welcome another opportunity to set out the Government's stance.

I value the speech made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Ground). I am also aware of the interest in this subject of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), who is present, and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Sir H. Atkins).

Green belt policy in England has been one of the most successful and popular of our planning policies. Unlike some others, it has not been affected by changes of fashion or by fluctuations in economic and social forces. The pressures for development around our cities have increased steadily since the war and have made it all the more important to preserve a belt of open countryside around them. By resisting development in the green belts, we shall certainly be helping to redirect investment back into the inner cities, where it is most needed.

I am grateful for the strong support of my hon. Friends for the way in which the Government have protected our green belts. I will not take up too much time by cataloguing what has been achieved, but it is worth reminding the House that the area of approved green belts has been more than doubled since 1979. Today they cover some 4.5 million acres—an area nearly as big as Wales. London's green belt, which is the subject of this afternoon's debate, covers 1.2 million acres — an area larger than the county of Hampshire.

My hon. Friends and their constituents are particularly concerned about the operation of green belt and planning policy in relation to the proposals for reusing the 70 hectare site of the Kempton park waterworks at Hanworth as a theme park. I would like to reassure them that I am fully aware of this proposal as is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham wrote to me in the summer expressing his concern, and that of his constituents, about the proposal. As well as the 160 or so objections which he forwarded to me on that occasion, the Department has received a further 93 letters. I have also noted the petition from the residents of Hampton against the proposal, which was presented to the House on 30 October.

Mr. Jessel

The petition was presented to the House on 25 July. I know, because I presented it. I am not aware of any other petition presented on 30 October.

Mr. Tracey

I beg my hon. Friend's pardon, and I am grateful for the correction.

From a recent letter which my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham addressed to my hon. Friend the Minister for Environment, Countryside and Planning, we understand that the local planning authority has received some 1,450 letters objecting to the proposal. There is obviously strong feeling about it.

The facts, as I understand them, are that the application for planning permission submitted to the London borough of Hounslow covers a site that is not at present within the green belt, but is proposed as an addition to it in Hounslow's draft west area local plan.

An appeal has been lodged recently against the council's non-determination of the planning application within the statutory eight-week time limit. I gather that the applicants have also submitted a further identical application to Hounslow. Jurisdiction on the first application is now with the Secretary of State, unless the applicant withdraws the appeal. The council may consider the second application in the usual way. However, I believe that the council considers that the proposal involves a substantial departure from the provisions of the approved development plan and, consequently, it will need to submit the application to the Secretary of State for consideration, if it eventually decides that planning permission should be granted.

I know that my hon. Friend is keen to have the earliest possible resolution of this planning application. I cannot yet say precisely when a public inquiry will be arranged, but I can assure him that it will be held as soon as possible.

The House will understand that I cannot comment on either application or on any other which may come before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for decision. It is always necessary to exercise restraint and caution in these matters to ensure that no party's interests are prejudiced, or seen to be prejudiced, by any premature comment by my right hon. Friend, his ministers or officials. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for explaining our quasi-judicial position in these matters.

What I can do is to remind the House of some of the more detailed aspects of green belt and planning policies which may be relevant in such circumstances.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston has suggested that the Secretary of State might use section 36(7) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. This allows him not to proceed to determine an appeal in certain circumstances. The subsection makes particular reference to subsection 1 of sections 29 and 30 of the Act. That power was based on an earlier assumption that the local planning authorities would be held closely to the provisions of the development plan when deciding applications. That has not happened. Indeed, the opposite practice has become established, and has been reinforced in various circulars. For example, circular 14 of 1985 says: Development plans are therefore one, but only one, of the material considerations that must be taken into account in dealing with planning applications Our planning system is based on the principle that each case must be considered on its merits. That applies in green belts as elsewhere. But, inside a green belt there is a general presumption against inappropriate development.

Mr. Jessel

In the light of what my hon. Friend has just said about the general presumption against development in a green belt, and in the light of Government policy as spelt out in pragraph 3(a) of circular 14/84, which states: detailed Green Belt boundaries defined in adopted local plans or earlier approved development plans should be altered only exceptionally", can my hon. Friend say whether the inclusion of the land in question as green belt in the west area of Hounslow borough council is something that the Secretary of State could and would take into account when deciding on a planning application in respect of that piece of land?

Mr. Tracey

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. I can tell him that in such cases we give advice to our inspectors. The advice is that in making a recommendation or a decision the inspector should consider whether an appeal site is appropriately included in a proposed extension to approved green belt, having regard to the advice in the circular that boundaries should be altered only exceptionally. In this case the inspector would be expected to decide whether there is sufficient justification for applying green belt policy to the site at that stage.

I was speaking about inappropriate development in a green belt area. The policy on controlling development in the green belt, which was first set out in its present from in 1955, is that approval should not be given, except in very special circumstances, for the construction of new buildings or for the change of use of existing buildings other than for a very limited range of purposes. These are agriculture and forestry, sport, cemeteries, institutions standing in extensive grounds and other uses appropriate to a rural area.

One of the purposes listed in the 1955 and 1957 circulars was sport — a matter of direct interest to me wearing another of my ministerial hats, and no doubt of interest to my hon. Friend who represents such a famous sporting constituency as Twickenham. This is a use of land which often maintains the open character of the green belt and provides for the recreation of urban dwellers. It is important that appropriate outdoor sport facilities are permitted in the green belts, because in this way they serve a positive purpose and one which lends additional popular support for the continued protection of our green belts.

Of course, some sports require more buildings associated with them than others and there can be no automatic presumption that planning permission will be forthcoming. It is a virtue of our planning apparatus that each case has to be considered on its merits.

I emphasise again that I am speaking about planning cases in general and not about any specific case. As I said, I am unable to comment on the merits of any appeal which is before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I can assure my hon. Friend that careful consideration will be given to all relevant facts and arguments before any decision is reached.

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

My hon. Friend says that consideration will be given to all factors. Will he and his colleagues always bear in mind that any major mall development, such as a shopping mall, not only desecrates green field sites but rips the heart out of the shopping communities in the boroughs and towns that surround our metropolis?

Mr. Tracey

I am happy to give that assurance to my hon. Friend. We give serious consideration to points of that sort and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently outlined that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham knows, the London borough of Hounslow has proposed in its draft west area local plan a number of changes to the green belt boundaries. These changes include the addition of the Kempton Park waterworks site. There will, of course, be an inquiry early in the new year to hear objections to that plan. We have asked Hounslow to spell out why it feels that the proposed alterations are justified.

Many of the hundreds of residents who have already expressed views about the reuse of this site will send those views to the forthcoming local plan public inquiry. It is extremely important for them to do so if the plan finally adopted is properly to reflect the interests of the local community.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.