HC Deb 10 February 1987 vol 110 cc161-9 3.31 pm
Dr. David Clark (South Shields) (by private notice)

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the planning implications of the Government's newly announced policy on the rural economy.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

Yesterday, we sent to the local authority associations and other bodies a draft circular on development involving agricultural land.

Hon. Members

Speak up.

Mr. Speaker

Order. If there was not so much noise in the Chamber, perhaps we could better hear the Secretary of State.

Mr. Ridley

Today's agricultural surpluses make the protection of land for agricultural production less necessary, so the draft circular proposes an adjustment of planning policy.

The draft circular underlines the continuing need for strong planning control over the countryside. It says that the agricultural implications must be considered together with the environmental and economic aspects. In deciding applications, local planning authorities will still have to take account of the agricultural quality of the land and the rate at which it is taken for development. These factors would have to be considered alongside the needs of the rural economy and the need to protect green belts, national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and other areas of good countryside.

Dr. David Clark

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that his announcement on planning in the countryside has caused deep dismay for all those who care about the unique beauty of the British countryside? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that many people believe that his proposals envisage a planning regime that would threaten the very fabric of the countryside as we know it? Will he confirm that the presumption against development on agricultural land, as enshrined in circular 75/76, is being reversed and that his proposal envisages a regime where the presumption is in favour of development on all grade 3, 4 and 5 agricultural land and, indeed, all developments of less than 50 acres or approximately 500 houses on top quality agricultural land? Is this not just a charter for speculators?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that "development" in his proposed circular incorporates the widest definition, including not only housing but mineral workings and quarrying, which so easily damage our landscape irreparably? Does he accept that, under his proposals, many local authorities will hesitate before refusing planning permission for development, knowing that this will ultimately mean an appeal direct to him where there is a declared presumption in favour of development?

Does the right hon. Gentleman envisage his proposed circular — will he comment categorically on this — applying to proposed developments in green belts, national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty? Does not the Secretary of State now accept that he would have instilled more confidence in the general public if he had announced his plans publicly in the House rather than in front of the press yesterday?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman has engaged in a massive piece of misunderstanding and misrepresentation and he has also got his facts wrong. The presumption against development has always been there in relation to the green belt, but in no previous circular has there been a presumption against development on virgin land outside the green belt. That position is not changed by the circular that I published yesterday.

The only point in relation to the 20 hectares or 50 acres that he mentioned that has changed is that hitherto, on four hectares of agricultural land, councils have had to consult the Ministry of Agriculture before they took their decision. We now propose that they should have to consult statutorily only when 50 acres are involved and it is grade 1 or 2 land. That does not mean to say that local authorities cannot consult the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if they wish. If a local authority has to choose between development or land of high amenity or landscape value and development on land of high agricultural value, it is now free to make the environmentally correct decision. It can choose to grant permission for development on the agricultural land, rather than on the high landscape quality land.

The circular can be interpreted, quite properly, as giving greater weight to environmental and employment factors, and less weight to the quality of agricultural land. I expect it to result in no more development in the countryside, but I hope that where development must take place it will be better located.

I made it clear in the circular and in my statement that green belts, areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks would not receive any less protection in any sense than they have hitherto received. It was quite wrong of the hon. Gentleman to try to spread that alarm and despondency. With his knowledge and understanding of these issues, he should have been able to do better. He might also take note of the fact that, in almost every previous case, with perhaps only one or two exceptions, a circular has been issued in response to a written question in the House.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

May I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said about the need to protect the green belt? Will he assure the House that there is nothing in the new policy which lessens his ability or determination to do so?

Mr. Ridley

That is absolutely right in relation to the green belt. However, some hon. Members confuse the green belt with green land. I must make it clear that on green or virgin land, the considerations for development will now be based equally on its agricultural use, its environmental quality and the need for rural development in that area. Therefore, a higher rating will be given to the environmental and employment considerations than hitherto.

Mr. Michael Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

Does not the Secretary of State agree that this is nothing more than a developer's dream and a bonanza for builders? If not, why is he removing so many of the MAFF controls at this stage? Will he also say what sort of development he sees in the way of diversification on grade 1 agricultural land of between 4 and 20 hectares? Will the Secretary of State also say what proposals he has to give new opportunities to local authorities which have no structure plans to control the development on grade 1 and 2 agricultural land, because under this current circular, there will be no such control?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong. The planning authority remains the planning authority, enabled to give or refuse permission to every application, large or small on land of any quality or quantity. That is not taken away. What is changed is that the planning authority does not statutorily have to consult the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food except in the larger case of the 50-acre grade 1 or 2 land. The second change is that, alongside the quality of agricultural land, the environmental and employment aspects of the countryside are elevated and given more importance. That must be right if we want to see a rural economy that is strong and healthy. That will be the best way to protect the countryside. Therefore, we have asked local authorities not to turn down unnecessarily applications which will lead to small-scale activities of any sort in the countryside which will help to increase rural prosperity. That is nothing new and something which the Social Democratic party, as well as the Friends of the Earth and the Council for the Protection of Rural England have themselves been advocating.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

Since the Government are right in helping farmers out of an economic straitjacket by giving them a range of opportunities for land use, will my right hon. Friend protect the countryside from the planners so that we do not see line upon line of houses on the heritage coastline or caravan parks on the skyline and make sure that derelict and vacant land in public ownership is got rid of first?

Mr. Ridley

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend on the point about derelict land and public ownership. We will be proposing measures in that area to improve matters. In the first instance, the consent to planning and development lies with the local authority, so, although a certain number of cases come to me on appeal, the vast majority of planning that is given permission is given that permission by the local authority. I cannot intervene to take that away. All I am saying is that the guidance I issued in yesterday's circular will elevate the importance of the attractiveness and environmental qualities of the landscape beside those of the quality of the land.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Is it not a fact that, until now, the presumption has been that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will use its powers under legislation and require the Secretary of State to call in developments on agricultural land, particularly grade I and 2? Has the Secretary of State not reversed that presumption in favour of developers when he says in paragraph 2 of annex A that that power will be exercised only in the most exceptional circumstances. Is that not, therefore, a charter for the developers and has the Secretary of State switched off the electricity in the electric ring fence?

Mr. Ridley

That is not so. Hitherto, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has had the statutory right to be consulted and can, like any other body or hon. Member, ask me to call in an application. That will still be the case. The Ministry can still ask me to call in an application. The decision about call-in will rest entirely with myself in future and the circular does not affect that at all. It is only a question whether the consultation is statutorily required or voluntary in relation to areas of 50 acres or more.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Will the Secretary of State agree that there is now no case for giving any special protection to agricultural land compared to other land on top of the rigid planning restrictions imposed by his own Department? In view of the outburst of ingratitude at today's National Farmers Union meeting, would it not be wise to remind that union and the Opposition that the EEC currently is spending £204 million every week on storing and dumping surpluses and that the average family in Britain is paying £13 a week more for its food than it otherwise would?

Mr. Ridley

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The present planning regime for the development of agricultural land is extremely strict. I would add that the circular, if anything, makes stricter, because it elevates the importance of the environmental considerations. My hon. Friend will forgive me if I am not tempted to comment on the common agricultural policy and matters of farming policy that are beyond my responsibility.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

When the Secretary of State was appointed, the worst fears of the environmentalists were that he would try to privatise the environment, and he is certainly setting about that. He has not provided extra money for the farmers, either for coniferous planting or for anything else. The only way in which farmers will benefit from the statement will be by selling their land to developers or speculators—land they may not wish to sell, but which this policy will force them to sell. After trying to hand over the inner cities to the speculators, he is now handing them England's green and pleasant land.

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The vast majority of land is already privatised, because it is privately owned, and it will be equally difficult to obtain planning permission in future as it has been in the past—

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

Then why are the Government making this change?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman has not got the point, although I have made it six dines and he is usually quite quick. I will make the point a seventh time and perhaps he will then understand. The point is that environmental and employment considerations in rural areas will rank equal to the value of the land in terms of fertility when giving planning consent. I would have thought that the whole House would welcome that.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, on further reflection, the guidelines will be widely welcomed as a means of ensuring the maintenance of enterprise in rural areas without threatening the green belt? Nevertheless, does he accept that, when local authorities grant a change of use for redundant farm buildings, there is a delicate balance to be held between the growth of small enterprise and a possible overstrain of the infrastructure? Can he assure the House that he will pass a message to local authorities requesting them to ensure that there is no overstrain of the infrastructure?

Mr. Ridley

Certainly, I agree about the great importance of allowing alternative activities and industry to take place in the countryside to increase the income of rural dwellers. In that way the countryside can be maintained at the high standard to which we have become accustomed.

My predecessor issued a circular encouraging the conversion of redundant farm buildings and we are pursuing that policy. We are asking local planning authorities to encourage that policy, but to ensure that conversions are in scale and that they fit in with the local surroundings. They must not change the rural character of the area. There is a delicate balance to strike, and it is for local authorities to do that. I am sure that they will do it very well.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Secretary of State aware that, no matter how he tries to retreat today from what has been leaked previously and from what the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said yesterday, the electors will see this as another posture by the Tory party to assist those in the City who have made money hand over fist during the past seven years. It gives them the ability to move out of the city into the stockbroker belt and beyond to make even more money.

Is it not a sad reflection on the highly developed western economy run by this Tory Government that, at a time when the Third world is starving and when we are faced with food surpluses which the Government cannot find ways to transfer to those who badly need them, they are preparing to line the pockets of the stockbrokers and the City slickers instead of feeding those starving millions?

Mr. Ridley

I must say that I have a certain admiration for the hon. Gentleman. Having listened to the details for 17 minutes — and I believe that the circular has been explained to the satisfaction of all my hon. Friends—he has got some neck in trying to misinterpret it and to get it wrong. It might help if he learnt to read, so that he could read the circular for himself.

Mr. Kenneth Carlisle (Lincoln)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that this package will help farmers to control surpluses and enable them to develop their initiatives as viable businesses?

On trees and the environment, can my right hon. Friend confirm that we should be encouraging not woodlands of conifers in the lowlands but trees that will be sympathetic to the landscape?

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said at the beginning of his question, which I entirely accept and agree with. Forestry is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. However, from an environmental point of view, I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about grants to increase broadleaved trees in farm areas and also lower down the hill. That will be a positive contribution to improving our countryside.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

Does the Secretary of State accept that his circular is nothing more than a charter for those who would rather jerry-build in a green field site than properly redevelop derelict urban areas?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. I advise him that last year 45 per cent. of all the land that was taken for building was land that had already been used before and that was derelict or waste land. That is the best figure that has ever been achieved in this country. Despite a massive amount of development, we managed to get 45 per cent. of it on to old land, which is therefore improved, rather than on new land. That figure is getting better every year. It will improve again this year and will be better again next year as a result of the Government's policy.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

My right hon. Friend earlier acknowledged that agriculture and the countryside are indivisible. He is aware that yesterday my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced that he would produce a policy document on alternative land use. Would my right hon. Friend consider a joint document between the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and his Department, to which they would be joint signatories, which would make it a great deal easier for those concerned with agriculture and those living in the countryside to understand the full implications of the Government's new policy?

Mr. Ridley

I think that my hon. Friend makes an excellent suggestion. I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether I have his agreement to pursue exactly that course. Furthermore, I intend to publish a document that is being prepared by the Development Commission, which will set out the many ways that we are working out to help those who wish to start small businesses or other concerns in the countryside, and inform those people how they can get better advice, help, premises, loans and grants. All of that is being worked out. It would be a good idea if we published it as a compendium volume in due course.

Dr. Oonagh McDonald (Thurrock)

Will the Secretary of State give a firm assurance to the House that the presumption will continue to be strongly against the use of low-grade agricultural land in the green belt for housing development, especially when derelict land is easily and readily available in the vicinity?

Mr. Ridley

Yes, that has always been the case. There is a presumption against permission being granted in the green belt.

Dr. McDonald


Mr. Ridley

There will be in the future. That is exactly the same as before.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, even if he is able to bring into use those thousands of urban acres of derelict land that are owned by public authorities, there will still be a need, if we are to meet the nation's housing requirements, for some building on green field sites? Are not the proposals announced by my right hon. Friend self-evident — that poor quality agricultural land might be put to better use? Is that not an excellent allocation of the nation's resources?

Mr. Ridley

I think that my hon. Friend is quite right. Where an authority or perhaps a county that has made a structure plan feels that there is a need for more housing, it must be right not to fetter the planning authority's decision as to precisely which land should be built on. It is obviously better to build on low quality agricultural land than on high quality landscape land and that is what the circular seeks to put right.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

The Secretary of State has been much more forthcoming than he was last Wednesday at Question Time. Is that not simply because he has been put in an extremely embarrassing position by his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, who was trying to get himself out of the trouble that he got into earlier today? Does the Secretary of State understand that there is a world of difference between rural development and creating an open house for rural dereliction? In view of all the apparent chaos in Government circles, can he tell us whether the Scottish Office has been involved in the discussions—if, indeed, there have been any discussions?

Mr. Ridley

Obviously, I could not tell the hon. Gentleman about all these plans last week, because they had not been published. Now that they have been published, I can tell him that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I agreed upon the terms of the circular several weeks ago. We were only waiting to have it published alongside his important, major statement about the future of the rural economy and agriculture which he published yesterday and elaborated on to the National Farmers Union this morning. It is all part of a perfectly sensible strategy. The hon. Gentleman will find that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales are wholly content with all that has been said and done.

Mr. John Heddle (Mid-Staffordshire)

Notwithstanding my right hon. Friend's answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), will he confirm that the green belt around the conurbations remains sacrosanct? Will he further confirm that his Department will make every effort to ensure that low-grade land, such as allotment land, becomes available for residential purposes? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Will he continue to ensure that all vacant and derelict inner-city land comes forward for development as soon as possible?

Mr. Ridley

I am entirely in agreement with my hon. Friend on the last point. Over and again I have made it clear that there is no change of policy and no relaxation of control whatever proposed on the green belt. On allotments, I have a soft spot for allotment holders. Obviously, the grade of the allotment, whether grade 1 or grade 2, must be considered. It must be for the local planning authority to decide what it thinks is appropriate.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that this is a private notice question. I have already allowed 25 minutes for it and I shall allow a further five minutes, making half an hour. Then we must move on, because we have a heavy day ahead of us.

Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)

The Secretary of State has sought to assure the House that the high amenity land, including the green belt, will be all right, with the excuse that some grade 3 land should be developed to provide jobs, housing or whatever. How does he square that with rate-capping local authorities, such as Sheffield, which have land for development, providing jobs and housing? Surely rate-capped authorities could do much more if they were given freedom, than, developers in rural areas can do with a blank cheque?

Mr. Ridley

I do not think that it is appropriate that ratepayers' money on revenue account should be used for development. Nobody would want to pay rates in order to see development and houses built. The hon. Gentleman is mixing the capital account with the revenue account. Surely it is better for development to take place with private capital than for ratepayers to be forced to borrow and pay interest on expensive public capital.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

My right hon. Friend's assurance that the presumption against development in I he green belt remains will be welcome. Will he confirm that it is still possible for any developer to apply to develop green belt land? That application must then be considered by the local authority, it may come before him and over a long period it may cause a great deal of unnecessary local anxiety. Could he not strengthen his policy by declaring that certain parts of the green belt, such as those around conurbations, are inviolate and that no application whatever will be entertained?

Mr. Ridley

I agree with my hon. Friend that a great deal of time and effort is wasted on applications for developments in the green belt. The policy is absolutely clear: no major developments will be allowed on the green belt, but only developments in relation to the rural community, leisure or such matters. That has been repeated over and again and developers are wasting their time if they apply for major developments — [HON. MEMBERS: "What does major mean?"] — or arty development which is in contravention of the policy that has been enunciated. My hon. Friend the Minister for Environment, Countryside and Planning — [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"] He has a bad cold. My hon. Friend has gone a little further in saying that it is unlikely that major retail centres which are applied for in the green belt have a chance of receiving permission.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor)

Could the Secretary of State indicate and quantify what area of agricultural land will be affected by these proposals? How will developments of land affect agricultural tenants with regard to landlords? What are the Secretary of State's right hon. and hon. Friends doing to ensure that other Members of the European Community are also acting in that way?

Mr. Ridley

I believe that., subject to my right hon. Friend's views, grades 1 and 2 cover about 17 per cent. of agricultral land in this country. There will, of course, be no new problems in relation to tenants in the way in which the hon. Gentleman suggested. As I have made clear, we are simply changing the presumption so that it is more in favour of the environment and jobs and less in favour of agricultural quality.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Although I disassociate myself from the emotive misrepresentations of the Opposition and the posturings of the dilettante alliance, my right hon. Friend will be aware that the vast majority of Conservative supporters support the countryside whether it be green or green belt? Will he assure the House today that, whether the land be grade 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will or should be consulted by local authorities whenever there is any doubt or controversy about a development plan?

Mr. Ridley

I assure my hon. Friend that I yield to no one in my love of the countryside and want to see it preserved in every way possible—and, indeed, enhanced and improved. We will not achieve that unless we have a new way of finding jobs and prosperity in the countryside. That is one of the objectives that the circular addresses.

Would my hon. Friend remind me of his second point?

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Would the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food be consulted?

Mr. Ridley

That is a matter for the planning authorities. They can consult anyone they please—the Nature Conservancy Council, the Countryside Commission or the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. They are perfectly free to consult experts in any of those areas. Local councillors would believe that they can be trusted to take their own decisions and consult where they believe that that is necessary rather than have endless duties thrust upon them which makes the whole process of planning slower and more cumbersome.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I will bear in mind again, as I said I would last night and as I have today, those hon. Members who have not been called on this occasion, and I will seek to give them priority.