HC Deb 24 October 1986 vol 102 cc1515-22

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Maude.]

3.11 pm
Mr. Adley

I now resume with the 10 questions that I was about to put to my hon. Friend the Minister. I shall read them quickly to get them on the record.

One: what guidance, advice or recommendations emanate from the DOE to shire counties about the preparation by them of structure plans or revised structure plans?

Two: has the DOE any particular strategic planning recommendations to make to individual counties? If so, what are they for Dorset?

Three: what is the statutory position of shire counties regarding the preparation of revised structure plans?

Four: what account does the DOE take in assessing the progress on an agreed structure plan of the effect on the plan of DOE inspectors' or ministerial decisions on target overruns for housing completions?

Five: What account does the DOE take in assessing the progress on an agreed structure plan of the effect of deliberate over-building by one authority within the county on that county's housebuilding targets vis-a-vis the current structure plan?

Six: what effect, if any, does the content of a county structure plan or revisions thereto have on specific decisions by DOE inspectors in the case of appeals to the DOE following planning refusals by district councils in the relevant county?

Seven: does the DOE plan any changes in ministerial circulars to local authorities on housing and planning matters such as to influence local authority planning decisions on housing?

Eight: does the DOE plan any changes in ministerial circulars to local authorities on housing and planning matters such as to influence inspectors' attitudes and recommendations on planning appeals?

Nine: what effect will the "Future of Development Plans" have on the preparation by shire counties of their strategic plans, if the proposals therein ultimately result in legislation?

Ten: what account does the DOE take of direct representations from Members of Parliament, the public and district councils concerning structure plans and revisions thereto when county councils not only produce the plans but submit to the Department their assessment of public reaction thereto?

I have already given my hon. Friend written notice of those questions so he will not have needed to write them down in shorthand.

I wish again to put on the record the answer given to me by the Secretary of State on 23 July when I asked him: Will he confirm that the initiation of structure plans and, indeed, the initiation of the revision of structure plans, is primarily the responsibility of the county council, and not his Department? Will my right hon. Friend further confirm that his Department responds after the county council has produced its proposals, and does not pressurise county councils before they produce their proposals? Finally, will he confirm that Dorset county council's revised structure plan for south-east Dorset is entirely its own responsibility? The reply was: I can confirm that all that my hon. Friend says is entirely correct."—[Official Report, 23 July 1986; Vol. 102, c. 337.] I submit that there is no substance behind Dorset county council's claim that the proposals in this revised structure plan are sponsored by or are the result of pressure from Her Majesty's Government. Furthermore, there is no logic behind the county council's claim that massive developments at Three Legged Cross, the Grange estate and Verwood, as proposed in the structure plan revision, would prevent development elsewhere. The logic of that argument can be shown to be quite silly. The county council claims that if these three huge new schemes are approved, the rest of Dorset will be able to shelter behind the planning refusals that may emanate from all the district councils in the areas outwith the three areas where major developments are planned. Yet all the evidence shows that each planning appeal is considered on its individual merits by the inspector.

If the county council gets away with what it is trying to foist upon my constituency, the green light will have been given to huge, unwanted developments that go way beyond anything contained in the 1980 structure plan. Thereafter, the rest of the county would still be open, on every single planning appeal, to the individual decision of the inspector and his assessment of Government policy as contained in ministerial circulars. That is why I stress the point that unless there is a change of ministerial circular we shall have the worst of all worlds if this plan is allowed to proceed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) wishes to address the House and I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey), has given considerable thought to the reply that he is to make to the debate. My ambition is to give courage and strength to Dorset county councillors to reject these monstrous and wholly unwelcome proposals. My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North has described them as a misguided and cowardly retreat from the 1980 structure plan and I concur wholeheartedly with him. Furthermore, the 1980 structure plan was drawn up by my hon. Friend the Minister's own Department.

The House is now considering the Housing and Planning Bill. Government policies for the inner cities under that Bill appear to be to seek to regenerate growth and investment in the inner cities. They seek to generate investment jointly between the public and private sectors. I applaud that aim wholeheartedly. That is why those parts of the Housing and Planning Bill that refer to development in the inner cities have received universal support in this House. However, the Government's planning policies are moving in precisely the opposite direction.

As for the planning policies that are being pursued by the Department, development resources are being concentrated in areas where there are easy pickings for developers. Instead of using tax incentives and the planning law to funnel development into the inner cities, we are giving the green light to developers to build in the lush suburban areas and in the more prosperous areas. Unless the Department changes its planning policy, we shall continue to channel investment into areas where, economically and socially, it is neither needed nor wanted. Thus, simultaneously, areas where development is needed will be deprived of investment for development projects. That is the broader point. I look forward very much to the answers that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will have to give on the points that I have raised in this debate.

3.19 pm
Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for having given me permission to join in this debate. I am also extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) for putting forward so eloquently and fully the case that concerns both his constituents and mine. He has already referred to some of the comments that I have made on the subject. I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said in the debate.

The level of development in south-east Dorset is of great concern to all our constituents. This matter concerns not just Dorset, a very beautiful part of our island, but the south of England generally. What my hon. Friend said about general planning policy is of great concern to many other constituencies, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister knows.

We had a structure plan in 1980 and a detailed consultation exercise arrived at the level of development to be contained in it. Inevitably, there was a compromise. I gave evidence but that did not provide the complete answer and was not reflected in the structure plan. However, there was a compromise and a plan of the level of development.

Now we have a draft review which shows how great a retreat is being proposed by the county council from the level of development in that structure plan. The document is a grim warning that we may expect 62,000 new dwellings in the area by 1996 instead of the 35,000 that were intended under the 1980 plan. Rather than strengthen a policy of containment for which there was widespread support by councillors and members of the public at every level in Dorset this document suggests an about-turn. It recommends an average building rate of about 2,350 dwellings a year instead of reducing that rate to 1,400 a year in line with the 1980 plan.

The recommendations are made for two reasons. The first is that somehow an increase in development in that part of the country will produce an increase in the number of jobs. If the review document is examined it will be seen that it contains the greatest amount of cold water for that proposal. There is no proven connection between a high level of development of residential houses—the kind of overdevelopment that concerns me—and the creation of jobs.

The second reason for the recommendations being made is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said, that it is a matter of Government policy. That is why we are having this Adjournment debate today. We want to get it clear that the Government do not have a policy of overdevelopment, as I see it from the document, of south-east Dorset. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will reassure us on that.

Indeed, the review document brings into question the whole purpose and status of structure plans and that is why my hon. Friend has asked his 10 important questions. We shall be listening carefully to the answers that we receive. What I conceive to be overdevelopment is not any development, sensible infilling, allowing businesses to develop sensibly or the prevention of businesses from setting up in the middle of towns and perhaps even villages, as suitable, to create jobs; it is the wholesale imposition of large new estates, often without the infrastructure being properly prepared, which changes the nature of the countryside in our county against the wishes, and, indeed, the consciousness, of the people. We do not know that these great changes are going on until it is too late.

I have asked what the Government's policy is, and that is what we want to hear today. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister has seen the speeches made by the previous Secretary of State for the Environment. Those speeches, certainly as I read them, would not favour the kind of overdevelopment with which we are now threatened.

The county council has put to me the contents of some of the circulars coming from the Department of the Environment. In particular, I draw the attention of the house to circular 15/84, entitled "Land for housing". The recommendations in that circular, which I have studied in detail, do not amount to Government approval for overdevelopment, as I have defined it. I do not have time to go through it in detail, but it is the contents of that circular that county councillors are telling me constitute Government approval for overdevelopment.

The circular covers the whole country. It applies to the nation, not just to rural areas such as mine or to suburban areas such as south-east Dorset. I ask the Minister seriously to consider amending the circular to make it clear how he differentiates between different types of land.

My local council complains that its planning decisions are overturned. Perhaps the Minister will produce figures showing that relatively few decisions are overturned. Figures sometimes mean very little because they can cover up the number of developments that take place. More important than the precise number of decisions overturned is the effect on local authority morale and the threat that they feel the planning department makes. If local authorities believe that their decisions will be overturned, that will affect the way in which they make decisions.

I do not have time to quote from all the papers in my possession, but they illustrate how district councils in my constituency, particularly Wimborne district council, feel fettered by the threat of the Department of the Environment overturning their decisions.

Land is our most precious asset. We need a more detailed policy on land use. I hope that in current and future planning policies the Minister will differentiate between areas. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley), I hope that he will help to reverse the trend to the south which is draining resources from parts of the country that need them and which is damaging the environment in the south.

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

I know that the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) will be grateful to him for introducing this important debate, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker). I congratulate them both on the detailed but measured way in which they presented their case.

Concern about the planning of such an attractive area is well appreciated. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch raised the matter on the Adjournment as recently as June last year.

My hon. Friend asked a number of questions and I shall endeavour to answer them in the time available. I shall write to him about those that I cannot cover. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are always ready to continue the dialogue on general policy in correspondence and in person.

First, I shall go over the background to the south-east Dorset structure plan. It was approved in February 1980. It proposed about 35,000 new dwellings over the 20 years from 1976 to 1996. To achieve that would entail a reduction in the annual house building rate from 3,100 in 1976 to less than half that towards the end of the plan period. It was expected that 10,500 houses would be built on small infill sites within the urban area and the balance on larger sites mainly on the edge of the conurbation. Industrial and warehousing land was proposed at several locations and in broad terms the plan established a green belt.

When approving the plan, the Secretary of State acknowledged its uncertainties and emphasised the importance of monitoring. Dorset county council has been deligent in this and has published annual reports. Its latest figures confirm that housing development has exceeded the rates that were assumed in the plan. By March 1985, 28,200 dwellings had been built. Development of large sites has been broadly as expected, but development of small sites within the urban area has taken place much more rapidly than was originally assumed.

This experience and the shortening horizon of the plan prompted the county council to proceed with its review.

The county council says that it framed its strategy within the constraints of national and local factors. It points out the difficulties of implementing a policy of restraint while contending with the inherent attractions of the area, high house prices and the effect on the local economy. The proposed alteration is said to have attempted to balance these issues and to have been determined in relation to the capacity of the area to accommodate growth. The draft proposals provide for 34,300 new dwellings from 1985 to 2001. That is an average of 2,140 house completions per annum. Of this total, infilling and consolidation of development is expected to provide for 26,800 dwellings.

The county council considered two general areas for longer-term development, of which one, the north-east sector, was expected to provide about 14,000 dwellings eventually, only about 7,500 of which are expected to be built by 2001, provided there are satisfactory arrangements for infrastructure. The procedures for the alteration of the structure plan are essentially the same as when the plan was first prepared. Dorset county council has consulted the public on its draft alterations. This is a statutory requirement and six weeks are allowed for representations. However, the council felt it prudent to go beyond the legal requirement and allowed over 13 weeks for comment. The council has now made it known that representations after that date will still be considered.

The county council will now have to consider the responses to its publicity. I trust it will take careful note of all the representations that it receives. When the council have completed this process, the alteration will be submitted to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his approval. At that stage another period of six weeks is allowed for the public to submit objections or representations direct to the Secretary of State for his consideration. These will be carefully examined and the Secretary of State may arrange for an examination in public to be held under an independent chairman. If, after considering the report of the panel and all the objections, the Secretary of State proposes to approve the alteration with modifications, there will be public advertisement and again six weeks will be allowed for objections. At all stages of the procedure there will be adequate opportunity for the general public to express their views.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) asked how the Department treats direct representations from hon. Members and from the public and district councils when structure plans are revised. The county planning authority is responsible for publicity and public consultation, but under the Act my right hon. Friend has to be satisfied by the steps taken by the authority to meet those requirements. As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch knows, objections and representations by the public can be made to the Secretary of State when the county council formally submits an alteration for approval. All representations received are given the most careful scrutiny before a final decision is made.

I will now deal with some of the other questions. My hon. Friends asked what guidance was given by my Department to county councils on the review and alteration of their structure plans. First I should explain that the legislation itself requires county planning authorities to keep their structure plans under review. This is not a procedure that has to be carried out at set intervals. I imagine it is self-evident why this should be so. We live in a rapidly changing world. It is important that planning policies are relevant and take account of the most recent information available. There is no statutory restriction on when county councils may propose alterations to their structure plans. They have been encouraged to do so when events have changed or when plans do not look sufficiently far ahead.

When altering their structure plans, county councils should have regard to Government policy. That is made public in circulars issued by my Department. In particular, we issued circular 22/84 in September 1984 which contains detailed advice in a memorandum on structure and local plans. I commend that memorandum to my hon. Friends for it explains a great deal more about the procedures than I can possibly cover this afternoon.

Our circulars on land for housing — No. 15/84, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North—and green belts—No. 14/84—are relevant. The Government wish to encourage home ownership and to bring that within the reach of as many people as possible. We also want structure plans to be helpful towards the creation of employment by not imposing unnecessary restrictions on businesses. The planning system should cater effectively for private housing and ensure an adequate supply of land. The Government also intend—I emphasise this — that well established conservation policies should be firmly maintained. In essence, our aim is to accommodate necessary development in ways that protect amenity and ensure economy and efficiency in the use of land.

It is recognised that the planning system has served those purposes well in the past, and in ways that meet both local interests and those of the community at large. That is the challenge that county councils face when they propose to alter their structure plans and which my right hon. Friend will be concerned to see fulfilled when he approves them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch asked further whether my Department had any particular strategic planning recommendations for Dorset. The strategy which the county council adopts in the structure plan is a matter for the county council itself. The circulars I mentioned provide guidance, as do nationally produced statistics and projections, but it is then for the county council to decide how best it should plan its area and to provide the reasons for its chosen course. Objections and representations can be made about these matters and my right hon. Friend will have to decide on them later when the alterations are submitted for his approval. It would not be right to prejudice such a decision at this stage.

My hon. Friend asked about the recent Green Paper on the future of development plans. As is known, the present development plan system of structure and local plans is under review and the Government have proposed the changes set out in the Green Paper. These changes are necessary because it takes too long to prepare plans, many plans are too detailed and the system requires too much involvement by central Government in approving structure plans. I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that I do not have time today to talk in detail about the proposed changes, but what I will say, however, is that the proposals would require legislation and none is expected in the next Session of this Parliament. Because of that, I would like to emphasise that for the present the preparation of structure plan alterations, and their submission to the Secretary of State, will continue as before.

My hon. Friend said that Dorset county council felt obliged to propose a large increase of housing over the 1980 structure plan directly and solely as a result of Government policy. It is true that the county councils have to keep their structure plans up to date. That is a statutory requirement. But I say again that the timing and content of the proposed alteration is entirely a matter for the council. It decided that the 1980 plan should be revised because of the need to extend it beyond 1996 to ensure a continuing framework for local planning and investment; to cater for changes concerning the creation of employment and provision of services, and to reflect an increased level of housing demand

Dorset county council has said in its consultation document that the choice of housing strategies has been constrained by a number of local and national issues, including Government policies. This is right, and reflects the advice given in our circulars, in particular those that I have mentioned. The county council also points out that its strategies take account of the views of the local public, the nature of the areas and existing policies and commitments. The decision to propose an alteration to the structure plan appears to be based on a comprehensive cross-section of advice and opinion. I can understand from what my hon. Friend has said that he questions that, and naturally we shall look extremely closely at those points.

My hon. Friend asked what account is taken of the effects of inspectors' and ministerial decisions on the progress of a structure plan. There appears to be some misunderstanding. The housing provisions of structure plans are not targets but the basis on which the planning of land availability and infrastructure can be made.

I fear that I shall not be able to answer precisely all the questions, but I can refer to the important one about Hurn airport. The inspector has submitted his report to my right hon. Friend for consideration, and all the representations made in writing and at the inquiry will he taken into account. Those points in the questions put to me by my hon. Friend that we consider need to be dealt with in more detail will be answered on paper. I repeat that my right hon. Friend and I are always available to hear from my hon. Friend and concerned hon. Members representing the county.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Four o'clock.