§ Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West)
I wish at once to express my appreciation to my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government for coming in to reply to this debate. I know that, as this Adjournment debate deals with the green belt and its importance to Hertfordshire, my hon. Friend will be most sympathetic, because in his constituency a piece of green land would be defended with the same vehemence and enthusiasm as the Alamo has been defended against marauding Mexicans. I like to think that my hon. Friend will give a sympathetic response to the requests that I shall be putting forward concerning the green belt of Hertfordshire.
This is, of course, in some ways a rerun of the debate in December 1985, when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey) replied. At that time I had in the Chamber with me my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Murphy), and I am very glad to see here my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), who I know is another champion of the green belt. I have to point out to the Minister that only a couple of months ago there was another Adjournment debate in the House on the green belt in Hertfordshire. That was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Lilley) and supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones).
I want to make it absolutely clear and to emphasise that in Hertfordshire every single Member of Parliament is desperately concerned about, and supportive of, the green belt and the need for it to be maintained. When I last spoke on this subject I touched on the county structure plan and made various remarks such as that, of the 1,072 individual responses received in connection with the structure plan, only 50 indicated a desire for development taking place. All the rest wanted Hertfordshire to remain the pleasant green county that it is at present. I must confess that there is concern that the county structure plan currently before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will open the doors for further development, and a further covering of concrete for the county of Hertfordshire.
In the past, the Government have been most supportive. When the green belt has been under attack and appeals have been lodged, they have supported each of the local authorities that have, one by one, defended it against the proposals. My own area of south-west Hertfordshire is now under attack. The M25, a very busy motorway, runs through the middle of it. To the north-east, we have the town of Watford, a growing vigorous area. One or two industrial centres have been set up, notably in Croxley park. That has brought much industrial activity into the area. We also have a train service which, despite the criticisms that are made of London Regional Transport and British Rail, is very efficient, and transports literally tens of thousands of commuters down to the City every day. It is a very popular area. However, with that popularity comes pressure.
Just to the north of my area is the "golden triangle", which is currently subject to a proposal for development which, again, will cover it in concrete. While it will be several months before the planning appeal is heard in February 1988, I should nevertheless like to register with my hon. Friend the Minister the concern felt throughout 253 the county that that stretch of land between St. Albans and Watford may be allowed to fall into the hands of the developers.
The original circular on the green belt made the position very clear. It said that it was there to check the growth of a large built-up area. From my point of view, that is very important. Several towns and villages in my area are separated from each other only by a thin strip of green land. If that thin strip were allowed to be "logically" developed, we should find that the growing tide of concrete and asphalt coming up from London would flow on remorselessly, and we should no longer know where Hertfordshire began and London ended.
The other purpose mentioned in the original circular was to preserve the special character of a town. I feel that a village in my constituency, the village of Bovingdon, is under attack. It is a pleasant village with a small infrastructure, which certainly cannot accommodate additional properties. Yet the structure plan suggests that it should be the recipient of a settlement. I believe that "settlements' are merely a means of getting around the present barriers and protections provided by the green belt. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bear in mind that, while "settlement" sounds all very well in theory—as though a pioneering experiment will be taking place—it merely means the destruction of a typical piece of Hertfordshire by the planners.
When I attended a meeting in the village hall just over a year ago, the room was packed, and everyone there was violently against the idea of Bovingdon being destroyed. I hope that that message is clear, and that it is received not only by my hon. Friend the Minister but by his Department. I know that it will be faithfully transmitted when the opportunity comes.
I am sure that the answer to our housing problems—and there are such problems—is not to expand London or to cover everything with concrete, but to concentrate on some of the problems of our inner cities, and to try to rebuild and modernise areas that have been allowed to go to rack and ruin. There is a natural temptation to turn away from the difficulties of inner-city areas, and to take the so-called softer, green target of Hertfordshire as the answer to our problems. However, I know from experience that merely releasing a few parcels of land will not bring down property prices in Hertfordshire. Although some people say that we should relax the planning regulations a little and be more flexible in our approach, the only way to bring about a sizeable or even a modest reduction in land prices — and therefore property prices — in Hertfordshire is to release vast tracts of land, literally flooding the market and, in doing so, destroying the environment.
Let me draw my remarks to a close by making an impassioned appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister to go to our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and tell him that the structure plan before him must be tailored to the needs of Hertfordshire, so that we may preserve our green belt and we do not destroy our villages. In that way, I am sure that we shall create an environment that we can hand on to our children and grandchildren, and of which we can be proud.
§ 8.7 pm
§ Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for listening to the debate, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page) on initiating it.
The green belt in the Hertford and Bishop's Stortford area is being considered by the Department of the Environment under the revised county structure plan procedure. I believe that, as my hon. Friend has said, the plan is now in the red box of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It contains a recommendation, or agreement, that a green belt be put around the sown of Bishop's Stortford.
I know that that has been refused by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment in the past, and considerable resistance has been shown to putting a green belt around every town and making it extend further and further north into the county of Hertfordshire. But Bishop's Stortford has suffered the deprivations of the agreement by the Department to permit the expansion of Stansted airport. Mercifully, it will take only 8 million passengers per annum in the initial phase; it will not be the very large airport that was initially envisaged. Within three months of the decision having been taken, applications had been made to build houses in the Bishop's Stortford area. If they had been accepted, they would have doubled the size of the town. Some of the major construction companies applied for permission to build 15,000 houses in Bishop'S Stortford. They have an organisation that is constantly lobbying the Department, because they need permission to build houses to satisfy the housing demand. My right hon. Friend has to strike a balance between those pressures and the need to preserve the environment.
The county structure plan does exactly that. I urge my hon. Friend to approve the county structure plan before the election. If, however, he does not agree with the county's recommendations, I ask him to postpone his decision until after the election, when proper discussions can be held with him. His intererests are now focused on Brent, North, which I expect him to win for the Conservative party, rather than on the green belt around Bishop's Stortford.
The issue is extremely important in my constituency and in Hertfordshire generally. All that my hon. Friend has to do is to agree to the county's proposals. If he did so, we should congratulate him. I believe that he has the interests of Hertfordshire at heart because he listened to Hertfordshire's pleas when it was being murdered last October by the proposed rate support grant settlement. He took our representations seriously, saw the injustice of the proposals and modified them. He did not remove entirely the penalties on Hertfordshire, but he reduced from £16 million to £10 million the amount of money that had been taken away from Hertfordshire. That represented a sensible balance with which we could live.
The county structure plan provides a sensible balance. We are against wholesale development in Hertfordshire, but the electorate in my constituency has expanded in the last five years from 67,000 to 76,000. My constituents do not therefore adopt a curmudgeonly attitude to development. Nevertheless, the constituency needs the instruments with which to control development sensibly and to pay proper regard to the environment.
255 The county structure plan provides for a certain amount of development in designated areas and it reflects the development that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment asked us to accommodate within Hertfordshire. However, development must be controlled; we must ensure that environmental issues are looked after. I ask my hon. Friend to take the county structure plan out of the Box of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and tell him that all he has to do is to sign it and issue it. I hope that he will do that in the next 24 hours.
§ Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)
The debate is taking place at only two hours' notice, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page) on taking this opportunity to raise the green belt issue, which is so important to our constituents. Concern about the green belt is felt not only in Hertfordshire but also in west and south-west London. My constituents in Twickenham, Teddington, the Hamptons and Whitton greatly cherish the green belt that successive Governments have upheld, but none more so than this Government, who, since 1979, have doubled the quantity of green belt in the United Kingdom, and even added to it around London. The green belt acreage now equals that of the Principality of Wales.
There is particular concern in my constituency about land that belongs to the Thames water authority. It lies to the west of Hampton village and contains two disused reservoirs. It borders Hanworth, in the constituency of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Ground) and also Kempton and Sunbury in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Sir H. Atkins). On several occasions, all of us have expressed concern to Ministers in the Department of the Environment.
Never in all my experience have I met as much strength of feeling about an environmental issue as I have met about this one. There have been 750 letters of objection to the proposed theme park on the site. I chaired two public meetings, one in July and one in September 1986, each of which was attended by between 500 and 600 people. At the end of July 1986 I presented a petition to the House that contained 2,200 signatures. An Adjournment debate was also held on this question on 14 November 1986. The concern continues. This development would create an immense increase in traffic, pollution of the atmosphere and, above all, loss of open land that de facto, though not officially, is green belt land.
The London borough of Hounslow, where most of the land is situated, intends to declare in its west area plan that this is green belt land. That plan was the subject of a public inquiry in February. I gave evidence to it and supported, as a Conservative Member of Parliament, the Labour-controlled local authority of Hounslow. The area is used by those who live on all sides of it for walking and sport and for the enjoyment of the grass, trees and wildlife. Once again I support the proposal that it should become green belt land.
When the Government consider the inspector's report on the west area plan of the London borough of Hounslow, I hope that they will declare that it is to be a green belt area. I cannot ask my hon. Friend the Minister 256 to make a decision now. I am perfectly well aware that he is unable to do so until he has studied the inspector's report. However, I ask him merely to assure me that he has taken note of my points and that they will not be overlooked when the inspector's report is considered. I hope that he will declare that this is a green belt area, as that should pave the way for the refusal of the monstrous application on which a public inquiry is to be held next October.
§ Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (Surrey, South-West)
I endorse all that has been said about the importance of the green belt. I represent a constituency in south-west London where there is enormous pressure for the development of available land. My constituency has the fourth lowest level of unemployment in the country, with the result that there is great pressure for housing and other forms of development. Inevitably, planning decisions require the judgment of Solomon.
We greatly welcome the presence of the green belt, but we are deeply concerned about those areas that lie just outside the designated green belt. My constituents are very concerned about the fact that decisions have been overturned on appeal against the recommendations of the local planning committee. According to the recent district council results, the Conservatives have been returned in the same numbers as previously. The borough council has a solid Conservative majority, which demonstrates the confidence of local people that decisions on sensitive matters are well taken.
I know that the people of Surrey, South-West would also want me to convey to my hon. Friend the Minister the fact that they warmly welcome the initiatives that are being taken to encourage inner-city developments. Inevitably, where green field sites are available — especially in attractive areas — they will be the developers' first choice. However, it is welcome news that 45 per cent. of new development last year took place on re-used land. That is extremely encouraging. Those of us who have spent time in inner-city areas will know how important it is to revive them and to encourage people to develop sites there rather than eroding the vital green lungs around London.
In a previous Adjournment debate I raised the matter of Stockstone quarry, and I would ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the difficulties there seriously. What is happening is an abuse of natural justice and a misuse of our planning controls. On the basis of a 1952 planning consent, attempts have been made to use the quarry as the site for dumping massive amounts of waste from the London area. The contractors, A and J Bull, are now appealing against the conditions set out by the county council. I have written to my hon. Friend asking him to consider this matter, because it involves grave questions of principle and precedent for other green belt areas.
Like my hon. Friends, I welcome the extension of green belt land. As Conservatives, we are particularly concerned with the conservation of our environment. In this, the year of the environment, there is a strong feeling among my constituents that the green belt plays a vital part in our quality of life. I appreciate this opportunity to join my hon. Friends and to represent the views of my constituents.
§ The Minister for Local Government (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)
I am delighted to have the opportunity to reply 257 to the debate. I think that all the minor details will be better looked at at leisure because of the importance of the issues.
I am delighted to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg), in whose constituency I have been privileged to speak. I must not refer to his family as being in the Gallery, but I believe that somewhere they are listening to the debate. Having talked to my hon. Friend many times, I know of his intense interest in green belt policy. He has often talked about the beauties of the Bury district and the revival, from time to time, of its football team. We have talked, too, about the beauty of the Rossendale valley, from which I come. Part of that valley, which is now a green belt area, was destroyed by the industrial revolution, but attempts are now being made to revive it. I know of my hon. Friend's wisdom on this matter and have often talked to him about the green belt in his constituency, in my constituency and in the constituencies of other hon. Members.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page) on introducing the subject of green belt policy. As we have found this evening, there is continuing concern about pressures for the development and the future of the green belt. As we are heading for a general election, I welcome the opportunity to set out clearly the Government's policy and position on the green belt.
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 even by fluctuations in economic and social forces. The pressures for development around our cities have increased steadily since the war and made it all the more important to preserve a belt of open countryside around them, and by resisting development in the green belts we shall 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 this Government have protected our green belts. It is worth reminding the House that the area of approved green belts referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) in his impressive speech has more than doubled since 1979. I am sure that you would agree with me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if you were allowed to speak, that that is an astounding success of the Government which should be known by everyone the length and breadth of the country. On recent measurements, the green belt now covers 4.5 million acres—an area almost equivalent to the size of Wales. Approved green belts now cover something like 14 per cent. of England.
I also remind the House of the answer which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) on 2 April this year, which will be known to many hon. Members here tonight. That reply showed that the area of approved green belts has increased from about 1.8 million acres in 1979 to 4.5 million acres. It provided details for each of the 15 green belts in England.
For example, London's approved green belt has increased in size from approximately 750,000 acres to 1.2 million acres. That for the west midlands area has also increased. I have no doubt that our green belt policy was instrumental in the revival of Toryism that we saw there last week. The people of the west midlands saw that we wanted not only to revive industry but that we wanted 258 people to look out from their houses and towns on the green belts surrounding them. The good and prosperous life is part of our party's philosophy. The same is happening in towns such as Nottingham, Derby and Stoke-on-Trent.
Our planning system is based upon the principle that each case must be considered on its merits. This applies in green belts as elsewhere but inside a green belt there is a general presumption against inappropriate development. The policy on controlling development in the green belt, which was first set out in its present form 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 exising buildings other than for a very limited range of purposes. Those are agriculture and forestry, sport, cemeteries, institutions standing in extensive grounds and other uses appropriate to such areas.
I shall deal with the specific matters raised by my hon. Friends. I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West for raising the matter. I think that I first met my hon. Friend in Workington in 1979. I spoke on the first day of the election campaign. My hon. Friend fought a hard fight in that constituency. The tide was heavily against him there, and we were all delighted when, after losing that seat, he stood for and won Hertfordshire, South-West. We are delighted with all that he is doing for the green belt in that area, and I assure him that I shall put his message across to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and come back to him on the details.
This is almost a naval debate. We have two Royal Navy ties present. My hon. Friends the Members for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), and for Twickenham are both Royal Navy. Had I known, as chairman of the British Legion in north-west London, I too would have worn my naval tie. The only thing is that it has no green in it, and would therefore not have been as fitting as it might be to a debate on green belt policy.
§ Mrs. Virginia Bottomley
I join my colleagues, in that I represent the Royal Naval School at Haselmere.
§ Dr. Boyson
That just shows the calibre of hon. Members who are linked with the Royal Navy. It is astonishing that, of the small number of hon. Members present, there is such great representation of the Royal Navy. The green waves and the green belt go together. We have stopped building for the open seas, apart from oil rigs which have been useful to this country, but we are building in our preservation of the green belts.
§ Mr. Jessel
Is my hon. Friend aware that my constituency includes a greater length of the bank of the River Thames than is within the entire area of Greater London?
§ Dr. Boyson
I must confess that I was not aware of that, but I shall be aware of it from now on. I shall ensure that that fact becomes known to one and all, particularly all.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford was a schoolmaster—we share an interest in that—and for a time was the director of the Aberdovey Outward Bound school. Outward Bound courses make the right use of the green belt, bringing up children with a knowledge of it. I am grateful for the tributes that my hon. Friend paid to me and to others—if I may say so in this frank debate, they were justified—for the help that we 259 gave with the rate support grant. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's popularity in his constituency. The fact that 9,000 people have hurried into that constituency in a few years is a walking tribute—or should I say running tribute, after the marathon at the weekend—to my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend asked some questions about the green belt. I shall ensure that Ministers in the Department of the Environment, which I am privileged to serve, are aware of everything that he said. Undoubtedly, they will get in touch with those responsible in his area about the green belt proposals.
My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham, who is also from the Royal Navy, is noted for music and, occasionally, skiing, at which he is sometimes successful, although he has fallen down, but that happens to all of us. The fact that he carries on is a tribute to his standing in all ways. For a long time, my hon. Friend has been one of Britain's greatest exponents of green belts. His constituents and those of all my hon. Friends should be grateful for their work. I trust that they are worthy of the hon. Members who represent them and defend their interests.
I was delighted to hear of the good borough results last week in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley). Undoubtedly, they were a tribute to her efforts and defence of the green belt in that area.
260 It is impressive at this stage of this Parliament, when many of us would like to get away to our constituencies, that, instead, we are considering the much more important issue of the preservation of the green belt. The difference between the Government and the Opposition is shown by the number of Conservative Back Benchers who wished to put across messages and who have thought about this matter—although some did not speak—and by the empty Opposition green Benches. If people have to decide at an early election, as I am told they will, how they should vote, they need only look from the Strangers Gallery—I must not look to see how many people are here or involve them in the debate—at the crowded Conservative Benches and the empty Opposition Benches. They will know that the Conservative party is concerned above all to preserve Britain's standards in every way, including its geography, green belt, prosperity and moral standards.
There is no doubt that if the people note that, the Conservative party's triumph in the general election will surpass even the great triumph of the 1983 election. It will be something of the past compared with the great future. There is no doubt that, because people know that Conservative Members stand for the green belt, they will flock to the polls to support them. We look forward to that day in four weeks' time when we see the Conservative green Benches in the House populated even more than the Opposition green Benches.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Nine o'clock.