HC Deb 24 July 1987 vol 120 cc619-28 10.17 am
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

; I welcome my hon. Friend the new Under-Secretary of State to the debate. I am only saddened by the fact that the first time that she and I are to have an exchange across the Floor of the House will not be a more pleasant occasion. This is the only time when I am in fundamental disagreement with the policies of a Government whom I robustly support. My hon. Friend's Department and her colleagues have made several errors of judgment recently.

I shall refer to the history of the problem of excessive development in central Berkshire, raise three specific constituency points and conclude by explaining that the problem is not parochial or a local issue, but one of national importance that affects other Government policies. I stress that feelings are running extremely high throughout central Berkshire, not just in my constituency, but in those of my hon. Friends the Members for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who hopes to catch your eye shortly, Madam Deputy Speaker, and for Reading, East (Sir G. Vaughan), who would have liked to be present today and wishes to be associated with my remarks.

I make it abundantly clear that we are not Luddite and opposed to any development in our area. We understand that there must be development and that life must go on. We are not trying to protect our own interests and ignore the national interest. However, in recent years we have been positively inundated with new housing developments. The previous Secretary of State for the Environment, Mr. Patrick Jenkin, was good enough to take up my request to fly over central Berkshire in a helicopter. He was horrified by what he saw—a complete urban sprawl developing from Greater London and Slough throughout central Berkshire and heading towards Reading and Swindon.

We have a new town at Bracknell. I do not think that it is unfair and unbiased of me to say that it is the most successful of our new towns. However, if we are not careful it will expand into many delightful rural villages, such as Warfield, Binfield and Winkfield Row, and on into the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham. The people who live in the town of Bracknell or in those village communities will have little green space and will be living, as I have said, in a total urban sprawl.

I refer now to our specific complaints. We are in the process of preparing the central Berkshire structure plan. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be aware that I gave evidence a year ago this month to her inspector and said that I believed we should have a zero option on the increase of development in the structure plan. Twelve months have now passed, but the structure plan is not yet available in its final form. We are led to believe that it will appear fairly shortly. We have had discussions with my hon. Friend's colleagues on this point and I have no wish to dwell on that now. However, we were amazed to find that two outstanding appeals in my constituency, one in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham and another in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East, had been recently allowed.

I shall refer only to the two appeals that affect my constituency, one on the Carnation Nurseries site at Winkfield and the second at Wicks Green in the village of Binfield. Apart from thinking that it is fundamentally wrong to change the nature of those villages by allowing such massive expansion, I was appalled to learn that the appeals were allowed by the Secretary of State, when we all know that the structure plan is pending and that it will be published sooner rather than later. It seems totally irresponsible to have allowed those appeals when neither the developers, my constituents nor myself have any idea of what the Secretary of State will think proper for the size of future developments in central Berkshire. I believe that the right policy would have been not to allow those appeals, but to await the results of the structure plan.

The granting of those appeals was wrong because, as I have said, they have fundamentally changed the nature of the villages concerned. They are destroying some of the few remaining green field sites in central Berkshire and putting the most unreasonable stresses on roads, schools, hospitals and other services. It is all very well for the developers and for the Secretary of State to go ahead with such developments, but nobody helps us to improve the roads or to increase the number of hospitals or schools—far from it. We are left with the problem and it is my constituents, not the Secretary of State, the inspectors or the developers, who suffer accordingly.

More specifically, I ask my hon. Friend whether she is aware that, along with my constituents, my district council at Bracknell and all my parish councillors, I favour the zero option in the structure plan. Assuming that we are not successful in the zero option, can we presume that the houses that the Secretary of State has allowed to be built at Wicks Green and Carnation Nurseries and on the two sites in the Wokingham district council area will be included in any number of houses that is mentioned in the structure plan? The Secretary of State would add insult to injury if we found that not only had those two appeals been granted, but that we were asked for additional houses in the structure plan because the houses allowed under the appeals could not he included.

I refer now to an area which may well be sub judice, so I shall be careful about what I say. I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be unable to respond. We are all aware that other appeals are pending. I ask my hon. Friend to request the Secretary of State to ensure that those appeals are disallowed, at least pending the publication of the structure plan so that at last note will be taken of local opinion, voiced not only by hon. Members but by every elected representative in Berkshire.

I give a warning, because I wonder why some of my councillors bother to stand for election. What is the point of serving on a planning committee if every time that one makes a decision that does not meet with the full satisfaction of the developers the developers immediately go to appeal and all too often the appeals are allowed? Quite frankly, I wonder whether I should advise Bracknell district council, the royal borough of Windsor and my parish councils that in the interests of my ratepayers, and to save some money, they should cut the number of their planning officials and abolish their planning committees.

There seems no purpose in electing local people to represent our views on planning, only to have them constantly overruled by somebody who has not even set foot in the area and who has no knowledge of local problems. That is deeply frustrating and insulting to those who, for no financial reward, give up a great deal of their time to serve the community on parish, district, borough and county councils. I want to make it absolutely clear to the House that we are undermining local government by riding rough shod over it and allowing planning by appeal. That is immensely damaging and should stop as soon as possible.

I turn now to the national issues. I strongly support the Government's policy of rejuvenating the inner cities. At 3 o'clock in the morning, after our famous and magnificent election victory, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister stood on the steps of central office and said that there was much work to be done and that her priority was the inner cities. I suggest that my right hon. Friend's priority is being thwarted by Ministers at the Department of the Environment.

At one time in my earlier career I was a director of our family housebuilding business, so I know a little about development. l advise my hon. Friend that if a developer has a choice between building on a green field site in Berkshire or elsewhere, or reclaiming some difficult inner-city site, he will opt — naturally and rightly—for the shire county green field site. He is right to do so because he must think of his shareholders, employees and himself. My criticism is not of the developers, but of the Secretary of State and the Ministers who have bent over backwards to help the developers. If we are successfully to rejuvenate the inner cities, and to do so with the help of the private sector, as the Government rightly want, we must discourage unreasonable and unnecessary development in the shire counties. If we do not do so, we shall not succeed in the inner cities.

Some people suggest that we have a north-south divide. I do not believe that, and I do not want to rehearse the arguments as to why I do not believe it. But, and a big hut, I have no real unemployment in my constituency, nor does my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham. My knuckles are regularly rapped by employers who say to me, "I have still shortages. How do I find cleaners, computer operators and a thousand other employees?" If we encourage development in the south-east, we shall discourage it in regions where there is genuine unemployment. It is in the national interest that unemployment is fought, but there is no fight in my area.

One can go to a jobcentre in Bracknell and find 400 vacancies at any one time. I do not buy the argument that if multinationals or small companies cannot set up in Thames valley they will immediately leave for the continent. They will go willingly to the midlands, the north, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, provided they are discouraged from coming to Thames valley and are told by the local authority that there is no room for expansion. They will then move to other areas, where house prices are cheaper, the environment has not been as spoilt as ours has been in recent years by these appeals being allowed, and where there is a plentiful supply of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labour. That is why we should oppose excessive development.

We referred to five years' supply of land. In allowing the two appeals to which I have referred and, I suspect, my hon. Friend's case, the reason given was that we perhaps did not have five years' supply of land in Bracknell or Wokingham. What is five years' supply of land? How long is a length of string? I do not know. The implication is that we must always have a five years' supply of building land to develop. When Carnation Nurseries is developed, some other plot must be produced to replace it, and on we go. The logical conclusion must be that every last piece of land will get used. When we have a complete concrete jungle, I am not sure what we do about it.

I cannot believe that we can continue to say, "Every area of so-called growth in the south-east must have a five-year supply of land." whether it be for 5,000 or 500 houses. I do not believe that it is right or proper to carry on building across our environment so that there is no open space and the communities, villages and towns that I represent are wholly destroyed.

I hope that the Minister will pass to the Secretary of State and the Minister for Housing and Planning the grievous concerns of my constituents. I hope she will make it abundantly clear that we are worried, not just for ourselves, our children and grandchildren, but because Government policies to tackle unemployment and to rejuvenate the inner cities will not and cannot work while this crass stupidity continues to allow appeals on the development of green field sites in central Berkshire.

10.33 am
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) for allowing me time in this important debate and for the forthright, clear way in which he expressed our joint anxieties. The anxieties of Wokingham are very much those of Bracknell, but while we like and admire Bracknell, we do not wish to grow closer by physical development. A green wedge is needed between settlements, otherwise the danger of growing urban sprawl from London to well beyond Reading will arise. That will be the direct result of the policies pursued by those who determine appeals in the Department of the Environment.

Wokingham district has not been unco-operative in recent years and in the past six years we have seen some 10,000 new houses constructed. That is a 27 per cent. increase in the housing stock on 1981. It is a massive development on a huge scale and has completely changed the nature of many parts of the rural Wokingham district. The district has not resisted development on every site or every opportunity for new housing. The case recently determined against the district on appeal illustrates how dangerous and damaging it can be for appeals against the council to be successful when it has pursued a sensible policy.

The Keep Hatch development which is now to go ahead because of appeal, for example, was one of the two sites examined by the district council. It opted reluctantly, and a little against its will, to allow development at Glebelands. It did so in the belief that some new houses had to go somewhere; that it was best able to make the decision locally, although it was wildly unpopular for it to do so; and that it would be backed up by the Department of the Environment seeing the importance of retaining the Keep Hatch site safe and as part of the important green barrier between Wokingham and Bracknell.

What was the point of the council making that difficult decision and allowing some houses to be built on a slightly less sensitive site when all its plans were blown sky-high by an appeal decision, which was bad planning and bad politics? The natural reaction of my district councillors in Wokingham must be to say that in future they will not be prepared to identify sites because, if they identify sites arid make careful decisions between sites, rejecting some as being wholly unsuitable, it is possible that on appeal the developers will succeed because of Department of the Environment decisions.

As my hon. Friend said, this is important because it is of major and national significance. By allowing the recent rate of growth in Wokingham without making resources or plans available for improving local health services, schools and the road network, grave problems are produced locally. At the same time pitiful problems of decline are experienced in our inner urban areas from which people are busily migrating. We then reach the ridiculous position where there is insufficient hospital and school accommodation in the high-growth areas. We then incur the financial and political costs of closing schools, hospitals or wards of hospitals in inner London and even in urban centres elsewhere in the south-east. This is not to mention the north and the north-west which desperately need jobs, enterprise and houses and already have the public facilities, which, however, are under pressure because thousands of people are decamping to the south-east because of the planning policy being pursued.

A district council faces an additional difficulty if a developer is given permission on appeal when the district has not wished to see the development take place. Its bargaining power to influence the nature and style of the development and to enjoy some of the benefits which would accrue to the developer from the profits of that development is lost. How can a local council demand a reasonable provision of infrastructure — shops, roads and other facilities — if planning permission has been given on appeal without any thought to the gain that will be made by the developer or the way in which some of that gain could be enjoyed by the local authority and the local community? One of the great advantages of allowing sensible local authorities to make decent decisions for their community is that they take all such factors into account.

Local authorities can strike a deal with the developer, if development must go ahead, that ensures that some of that gain can be used for the provision of infrastructure and those services that the development clearly requires. We are in danger of losing all that bargaining power if we reach the stage where planning decisions are made on appeal and not where they should be made, in the elected chambers of local authorities.

I believe that there is a distinction between planning for green field sites and planning for urban or rundown areas. I find it curious, in Berkshire, for example, that the population of Reading town is falling and yet my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Sir G. Vaughan) has discovered that planning permissions are granted on appeal for the rural areas of his constituency. It seems strange indeed that, in the middle of the fastest growing and one of the most economically successful areas of the country, the prime town is still experiencing net migration while all the rural areas are in danger of being despoiled.

I would like to add my voice to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East in asking the Minister and the Ministry to take on board a few specific points. When appeals come up in the future on green field sites, will the Ministry bear in mind that they are different in kind from the appeals of restrictive local councils in urban areas, trying to stop prosperity coming back to derelict areas? Therefore, the Ministry should take a much harder view of the appellant's case and more often than not it should presume — indeed, in every case in areas such as Wokingham—in favour of the local council that has made a sensible decision about those green field sites. It is important that the number of houses that have now been granted against us on the Keep Hatch site should be reduced in any future target that may be imposed or voted upon us for development under the new structure plan. It is important that the new structure plan is brought in quickly; I would like to see the Ministry make rapid progress on that. I urge that the structure plan takes into account the massive development that has already taken place. There is a need for a period of quiet and calm to shake down those developments to ensure that local services are adequate for the job that they now must perform before major new expansion is embarked upon.

I should like to think that the Ministry will also take into account the fact that the local council has done a good job by the local community and has not always taken the easy option. The Ministry, with its responsibilities throughout local government, should be able to distinguish between pure Luddites and councils that are in difficult circumstances but are doing a good job and take into account the views of their local area.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I do not wish to constrain the Minister's time because there are many important points that we would like my hon. Friend to answer. Above all, we want the outrageous level of growth checked and we want a better deal for central Berkshire.

10.43 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Marion Roe)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) for his initial kind remarks and I am grateful to him for raising the subject of development in Berkshire, which I know is a matter of great concern to all the other hon. Members in that county and to a great many people who live there.

My Department is fully aware of the anxieties felt in Berkshire about the impact that development, particularly housing development, has had on the strains put upon roads, schools and hospitals and those caused through the loss of the countryside. Berkshire Members have been assiduous through deputations to successive Secretaries of State, and indeed in previous Adjournment debates in 1983 and 1985, in ensuring that we are in no doubt of the strength of local feeling about those matters.

Of course, we fully recognise the very significant expansion that has taken place in Berkshire, particularly in central Berkshire. The county has seen the successful development of Bracknell new town and the emergence of Reading as a major business centre. The attractions of the county to developers are only too obvious; proximity to Heathrow, the M25 and the M4 corridors and not least the quality of the environment that has justified the county being called "Beautiful Berkshire".

Not all the factors promoting development are necessarily disadvantageous. They have contributed significantly to the growth of a strong, active, buoyant economy, with one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the country. Berkshire is acknowledged as a centre for high technology development with an international reputation that attracts inward investment to this country. The nation as a whole has reason to be grateful for the contribution that business in Berkshire is making to the regeneration of the national economy. However, there is a price to pay for economic success, in the effect that the development needed to support the growth of business, industry and population must have on the environment and character of the area.

There is a need to take stock regularly to ensure that the pace of development does not exceed the capacity of the area to absorb it without damage or without creating serious imbalances between the provision of employment and housing and the provision of services. I also take my hon. Friend's point that we need to look carefully at the possible consequences for other less advantaged areas of the concentration of economic activity in counties such as Berkshire.

When my hon. Friend raised the question of development in Berkshire in the House in December 1983 he was advised that the proper forum for consideration of the future levels of development in the county was the then impending review of the Berkshire structure plans. Since that time the county council has submitted proposals for a replacement structure plan for the whole county to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and that is now under consideration.

The county's objective, set out in the plan, is to secure as sharp a decrease as possible in housebuilding rates. I need not tell my hon. Friends how much interest these proposals have raised. My hon Friend the Member for Berkshire, East and his colleagues the hon. Members for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and Reading, East (Sir G. Vaughan) attended and spoke eloquently in support of the county council at the examination in public, held in July last year. Clearly, that demonstrates how important this issue is.

My right hon. Friend and I are very much aware of the need to reach decisions soon about future development in Berkshire. The existing structure plans are out of date and do not provide a satisfactory basis for controlling the levels of housing and employment development. The report of the panel that conducted the examination in public has taken longer than we had hoped. However, as soon as its report is received we shall move as quickly as we can to publish any modifications to the county council's proposals. I can assure my hon. Friends that I am anxious that there should he clear and sound planning policies worked out for Berkshire to assist in proper planning control.

Two particular concerns have emerged from this debate: the recent appeals decisions which have been issued allowing housing development in central Berkshire; and the suggestion that allowing development in Berkshire is inconsistent with the Government's policies for regeneration of the inner cities. I will take the appeals first.

My hon. Friends will be aware that we are still within the period when decisions on two appeals could be subject to legal challenge. My comments must take that into account. I should also say that in two appeals — Shipnell's farm and Wicks Green, Binfield — there has not been a final decision. The appeals have been referred back for consideration of agreements on various matters.

I think a main concern is that we have actually dealt with those appeals while the whole question of future housing levels has yet to be decided in the structure plan. Certainly the decisions would be easier if the replacement structure plan had been approved. However, it would he quite unreasonable to freeze decisions on all appeals during the process of reviewing the structure plan.

My right hon. Friend has a duty to consider planning appeals which are made to him, and he must do this having regard to all the relevant considerations——

Mr. Andrew MacKay

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Roe

I have a great deal to cover, and I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to complete it. If I have not covered any points, I will issue a follow-up letter.

Mr. MacKay

May I make a brief intervention?

Mrs. Roe

Perhaps later. May I get on now?

As I said, my right hon. Friend must have regard to all the relevant considerations, which will include the fact that there are structure plan proposals. Action may he taken against him in the courts if he unreasonably delays decisions on appeals.

In deciding the appeals in question my right hon. Friend was aware of the local view that there has been excessive development in central Berkshire. I may say, however, that the county council is not proposing that there should be no further housing development in the county. The number of houses involved in these appeal decisions is not, in our view, inconsistent with, or a threat to, the total housing provision proposed by the county council.

The difficulty, which I appreciate, is that the development is being allowed in areas not favoured by the local planning authorities, but my right hon. Friend has had to have regard to the inspector's conclusions about the housing land supply and the suitability of the sites for housing. What I can make clear, which I hope will be helpful to my hon. Friends, is that any houses which are allowed on appeal in the period before a replacement structure plan is approved will count towards whatever total housing provision is decided in the plan and will not be additional to it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East mentioned the need for a five-year supply of land. I assure him that the Department of the Environment does not intend an unlimited continuous supply of land for housing. The size of the five-year supply is limited by the total housing provision set in the structure plan.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the north-south divide. It is not as simplistic as north versus south; rather it is the inner cities in the north, with Labour councils, which have problems. Indeed, in the north there are areas of prosperity where the quality of life is similar to that in Berkshire.

On the other question regarding our policies for the inner cities, I recognise my hon. Friend's concern that development allowed in Berkshire may be denying deprived areas the opportunity of attracting that development. There is no convincing evidence that restraint of development in economically attractive areas encourages investment in less attractive ones. The danger is that the investment may be lost to this country altogether. Our policy is aimed at securing new investment in the inner cities, not in preventing investment in areas such as Berkshire. The economic success of Berkshire is important to the country in attracting investment, in encouraging enterprise and in helping to provide the national resources which will enable initiatives to be made to help other areas. We need to be careful not to sacrifice that achievement.

I do not agree that there is a conflict between our policies on inner cities and allowing housing development elsewhere in the country. We would, of course, hope that developers would make use of sites in inner-city areas where those sites are available. Our registers of unused and underused publicly owned land show that there are some 15,000 acres of such land in London and the south-east: almost half of this land has been assessed as having a medium to high development potential.

We make derelict land grant available to both the public and private sectors to encourage the development of derelict or unused land in urban areas, thus relieving pressure on green field sites. This year, about £3.6 million has been set aside for reclamation in south-east England, including London and East Anglia.

A considerable amount of housebuilding has been taking place in London docklands. By 31 March 1987, 4,250 homes had been completed on sites prepared by the London Docklands Development Corporation, more than half of which were priced at or under £40,000. About 3,350 private homes are currently under construction on Docklands Development Corporation sites, and 2,350 have been built on non-development corporation sites, with about 2,050 under construction. The totals are 6,600 homes completed and 5,400 homes under construction.

The ordnance survey record of land use changes in 1986 shows that, nationally, 46 per cent. of land developed for residential use was previously developed or was vacant land in built-up areas. In the south-east, this proportion was 54 per cent. while in Greater London it reached 86 per cent. These figures illustrate the extent to which housing demand can be met within existing urban areas. I assure my hon. Friends of the strength of the Government's commitment towards the regeneration of the inner cities and making the best use of urban land.

Our achievements in the inner cities, and by way of the use of urban land and re-use of derelict land, will not, by themselves, provide adequate land to meet the housing and other development needs of the existing populations of counties in the south-east; and most projections show that that population will continue to grow. Other land will have to be found, but our firm view is that this can be achieved without serious damage to important environmental interests. This was explained in the regional strategic guidance set out in my right hon. Friend's letter of 19 June 1986 to the chairman of the south-east regional planning authorities, Lord Sandford.

Mr. Redwood

Is my hon. Friend aware that the current rate of development in London is still insufficient to prevent a net migration? Is she aware that she is agreeing with my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) and me in saying that more can and should be done in the cities? We are looking for more urgency to get those thousands of acres in inner London back into housing use.

Mrs. Roe

That point has already been noted by my Department and by others involved in housing, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware.

The key to resolving the planning problems faced in central Berkshire is to complete the process of revising the structure plan, and I have already said that we shall do all that we can to speed this up. My hon. Friends may rest assured that all the representations that have been made will be most carefully considered, as will the panel's report and recommendations. When my right hon. Friend's modifications to the plan are published there will, of course, be an opportunity for comment on the modifications.

Mr. Andrew MacKay

Appeals are pending on which decisions might have to be made before the structure plan modifications are announced by the Secretary of State, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and I agree with the Minister that it would be unreasonable for everyone concerned if we delayed those appeals. We say that they should not be allowed pending the publication of the structure plan amendments. That is a very different matter, and that is what I want my hon. Friend to take on board.

Mrs. Roe

I have noted my hon. Friend's point carefully, but he will understand my position and the fact that I am unable to comment further.

The matters which have been raised in this debate are important. We fully understand the pressure for development in Berkshire in those areas outside the green belt and the areas of outstanding natural beauty. The essential task now is to set the right levels for future rates of development which are best for all the interests in the county.

The difficulties being experienced in the administration of planning control in central Berkshire have been exacerbated by the length of the structure plan process. The development plan system is undoubtedly too cumbersome. It engages too many resources and is too slow both in the preparation and approval of plans. My right hon. Friend has published proposals in a Green Paper for a thorough revision of the system, and I am pleased to say that the response has shown general agreement that the system needs changing. I am sure that a more responsive development plan system would have gone a long way to avoiding the sort of problems now affecting Berkshire.

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