HC Deb 12 April 1988 vol 131 cc139-46

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

11.48 pm
Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

I wish to speak about the green belt in Bearsden and Milngavie district council area and I propose to leave some time for my esteemed colleague the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) to take part in the debate. We shall speak with a massive amount of public support and with Bearsden and Milngavie district council behind us.

Only this afternoon the community council in Milngavie phoned to say that it was fully behind us on this issue. All political parties in Bearsden and Milngavie agree on the importance of defending the green belt and are worried by a recent decision of the Secretary of State which undermines the Strathclyde region structure plan. That plan has been immensely important in regenerating Glasgow and in ensuring that that city avoids becoming what the Americans call a doughnut city—one that expands to the outside and leaves a great hole in the middle.

Through that structure plan, there has been a considerable move that has stopped the green belt being encroached upon and the outside of Glasgow becoming wall-to-wall Wimpey. Before Strathclyde came into being, there was a massive overprovision of building land on green field sites. The reason for the debate is to protest at the weakening of the structure plan as a result of the Secretary of State's approval of the building of 6,600 more houses in green field areas. That is not yet affecting Bearsden and Milngavie, but, if we follow through the argument, it will eventually do so.

Bearsden and Milngavie are highly desirable places to live and they both retain their precious, separate identities. People like living there. There are strong community ties, but those depend very much on the size being kept to a reasonable level. The demand to live there is simply immense. Builders would wish to build there continuously, if they were not prevented from doing so, but the demand should be resisted because of the need to continue the regeneration of Glasgow, which has been an immense success, with tenements restored and new housebuilding in areas such as Maryhill, Priesthill and, above all, the Gear area.

One would also need to resist the builders' demands, if the Government's urban policy, announced two or three weeks ago, were to have any chance of success. The Government say that they are now interested in the peripheral housing schemes. One assumes that what occurred in Priesthill will occur in some of those schemes—selective demolition of some areas where there are vacant houses and new private building.

Builders will not go on to brown field sites in inner-city areas unless they are forced to do so. At the inception of the structure plan, the builders said that there would be no demand for city centre sites, but they were proved wrong. They simply wanted to go on building in the traditional areas—Bearsden, Milngavie, Strathkelvin, Lenzie and so on.

It is also important that the builders are resisted because of the infrastructure implications. It is common sense that, where the infrastructure in terms of roads, water, sewers and schools, has already been put in, one should not unnecessarily duplicate that work. As the Under-Secretary of State knows, the Secretary of State for Scotland is singularly mean with Strathclyde regional council. There is no service for which Strathclyde council has been proportionately funded for the past five years. There has been systematic and planned underfunding of that local authority.

In addition to considering the infrastructure factors and the need to regenerate Glasgow, we must also bear in mind that the communities of Bearsden and Milngavie want very much to maintain themselves as they are. They are densely congested districts. They have the least countryside of any district council in Scotland. There is a need for some development in terms of the demand for sheltered housing and further council housing in the area, which is desperately needed, and housing for first-time buyers, but that is not what the builders want to put up.

All that is threatened by the Secretary of State and his weakening of the structure plan. There has been a denial of the fact, demonstrated by the regional and district councils, that Greater Glasgow is a single housing market. Everybody knows that, although people may talk in terms of north of the Clyde and south of the Clyde. To treat the district council areas as the Secretary of State is urging, as the basic unit for supply and demand is frankly ridiculous. What the Secretary of State has done in allowing for mobile demand in Greater Glasgow and Lanarkshire, at half the level shown by recent outside purchasing moves, has no basis in fact. This is denying the regional role in terms of a structural plan. Oddly enough, the district councils fully support the regional role.

It is not true, as the Secretary of State for Scotland has claimed, that the detailed matching of supply and demand is clearly a matter for district councils. It is not. As far as we can tell there is unlimited demand to live in Bearsden and Milngavie. If the demand is yielded to, it will destroy the integrity of the area.

The Secretary of State has accepted the view of the house builders. He has said: councils should define an approach to housing market areas which accords more closely with the perceptions of the house builders. The effective land supply as agreed and tabulated by the house builders during 1987 should be taken as a starting point for district assessments. Why? What evidence is there that the district is right? The elected representatives, the professional planners in the district and region, do not think that the builders are right, but the Secretary of State has taken the view of the self-interested group without accepting that the self-interested group will automatically claim that there is a need for more housing on green field sites. The Secretary of State admits that he is not going by the demographic facts alone and claims that other vague factors must be taken into account. However, there has been no public examination of the builders' submissions.

Left to themselves, the builders automatically prefer green field sites unless they are forced to build on brown field sites. We can reach only one conclusion and I regret saying this. In effect, the Secretary of State and the Tory party have been bought by the builders' interests. Last year the builders made donations of about £150,000 to the Tory party and they are now receiving the reward for their investment.

We have had an immensely successful structure plan for which all parties, including the Government and the local authorities, deserve credit. All the evidence is that the structure plan is working. However, it is being undermined by the Secretary of State's decision, and the revival of Glasgow and the urban policy announced two or three weeks ago are under threat. If we followed the requirements of the Secretary of State in his yielding to the builders, there would be wasteful provision of infrastructure.

As the local Member representing the Milngavie part of Bearsden and Milngavie district, I can tell the Secretary of State that he will undermine the special community nature of places like Milngavie if those areas are prevented from becoming stable and settled communities. If the Secretary of State pushes out along that line, one of the great success stories for which all parties can take credit—one of the great success stories of post-war planning—the green belt, will be threatened.

By choosing this subject for the Adjournment debate, I hope that the Minister will justify the extraordinary example of special pleading which. the builders have made without any authentication or public examination of their submission. Why has the Secretary of State given in to the profit desires of the builders and ignored all the informed opinion and the public sentiment of the citizens of Bearsden and Milngavie?

11.58 pm
Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on behalf of my constituents in the Bearsden part of the Bearsden and Milngavie district council and to protect their interests in what is a desirable, beautiful and excellent place to live. My constituents wish it to stay that way, and I see no reason why it should not do so.

We now find the Government forcing changes on the district which will significantly alter its characteristics and my constituents oppose that. They do not understand, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) said, why the districts are suddenly to be the measure by which ranges of options of land are to become available. What has happened to the Greater Glasgow market?

I have many friends who were born in Bearsden or Milngavie who moved off for a while to the centre of Glasgow and lived in the west end, Hyndland and Clarence driveway, before returning eventually to Bearsden or Milngavie. That is the nature of the Glasgow housing market.

I hope that the Minister will address himself to the specific points that I am about to raise. In the Secretary of State's decision letter, Res. I says: Each district will bring forward and maintain a range of opportunities for private house building. That is important, because it means that in Bearsden and Milngavie parts of the green belt will have to be opened up. There is enough land available for future housing needs in Bearsden and Milngavie, but for the range of options being considered the green belt will have to be opened up, particularly if, as the builders tell us, the plans are not just for flats or houses with one or two bedrooms but for houses at the upper end of the market at £150,000. Is Res. 1 in the Secretary of State's letter to satisfy the need for the upper end of the market? The builders will use it to open up the green belt. As my hon. Friend says, they will not go to brown field sites.

Let us consider Res. 3 and the increased demand that is written into it. There is some confusion with Res. 1. Paragraph 1.5.6 of the decision letter recognises that immediate cross-boundary flows and opportunities may occasionally justify some flexibility in matching local demand and supply for individual districts. What does that mean? Have the districts to be self-contained, or shall we take into consideration what is going on in surrounding districts? If so, we are back to a Greater Glasgow housing market.

Let me remind the Minister of the Tower farm decision. The Secretary of State recognised that demand for the kind of housing sought in the application. Tower farm is in the Strathkelvin area of my constituency which, according to Resolution 3 will have to find additional land for houses, which will, of necessity, mean opening up the green belt. Tower farm would have been the initial opening up. Yet the Secretary of State said that demand for the kind of housing sought in the application could be met through the development of available sites in Bearsden and Milngavie, which are nearby within the conurbation as well as in the same market area.

Is not there a confusion in the Secretary of State's decision letter where he talks about single districts and the greater market? How much flexibility will there be? Will Strathkelvin have to meet all its extra demand by opening up the green belt or can it be met in surrounding districts with surpluses of land? Can Bearsden and Milngavie deal with Resolution 1 by looking at the Strathkelvin area? That is important. It is also relevant to the current issue of the Langfauld farm application, which is going to written submissions. Does the Secretary of State agree that that must go to a public inquiry?

Is it not the case that the Scottish Office is now paying its debts to the builders? As we know, the chairman of the Conservative party has close links with McTaggart and Mickel. Are the Government now paying them back in kind for their contributions to the Conservative party?

12.4 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

Our premise is to act in the best interests of Scotland as a whole. May I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) who is responsible for at least 50 per cent. of the Adjournment debates which I have answered, as well as an enormous host of parliamentary questions. I say that in advance, as I am about to disagree with much of what he said. I shall endeavour to answer all the points that he raised and I shall read again what the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) said and if I miss any points I shall follow them up in writing.

I am aware that the modifications have given rise to concern and I should like to make two preliminary points. First, I should make it clear that I cannot offer a definitive interpretation of the policies which now form part of the approved structure plan. The reasoning behind the various modifications which my right hon. Friend made to the policies submitted to him is set out in my Department's decision letter of 10 March. Therefore, a decision has been made and any dispute over the interpretation, if pursued, would have to be a matter for the courts to decide.

However, I believe that the policies are clear. They will have to be interpreted by the district council in preparing its revised local plan for the district and in considering the planning application which it receives. What I can do is give the general considerations which gave rise to that decision letter.

Secondly, I should make it clear that any alteration of green belt boundaries is primarily a matter for the district council. Green belt boundaries are not fixed by the Secretary of State. The need for a green belt in a particular area and the general shape that green belt should take are matters for the regional council, in areas like Strathclyde where both the region and the district having planning responsibilities. As part of its strategic planning for the region as a whole the regional council may wish to propose alterations to the general shape of the green belt, to provide additional protection or to accommodate new development, but the actual boundaries of the green belt can only be formally determined by district councils in local plans.

Thus, the boundaries of that part of the Clyde valley green belt which falls in Bearsden and Milngavie district have been set in the local plans adopted by the district council and will be revised or confirmed in the districtwide local plan which the council has in preparation. Only in exceptional circumstances would my right hon. Friend be prepared to intervene in the preparation of the local plan. I am aware of only one case in which that has happened in the past.

I now turn to the Strathclyde structure plan update 1988, which my right hon. Friend approved with modifications last week.

Mr. Galbraith

Will the Minister give way?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I should like to get on with the debate; I have many points to answer in a short time.

When our proposed modifications to this update were published last October, many of those who commented argued that they would have the effect of encouraging housing development in the green belt on a significant scale and would detract from the efforts which have been made to encourage regeneration in the Glasgow conurbation. That was the point that the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden just made. Particular concern was expressed by Bearsden and Milngavie district council about the erosion of the green belt in its district. I believe these representations were based on a misunderstanding of the modifications, for a number of reasons.

In the first place, the update contains, as well as a review of the supply of housing land, a review of the Clyde valley green belt. The purpose of this review, which stems from my Department's circular on green belts issued in 1985, was to establish a longer-term settlement strategy for the definition of the green belt, to ensure that the green belt had stability and endurance and to give consideration to the reinstatement of land of which was not making a significant contribution to the green belt.

The review concluded that the general shape of the present green belt was consistent and defensible and that no major alterations to its boundaries were needed. This conclusion was endorsed by my right hon. Friend in approving the update. While this endorsement does not preclude local boundary adjustments, it underlines the commitment of the region and the Government to the maintenance of a green belt around Glasgow and to the retention of the general shape of the existing green belt.

Secondly, while the modifications identify certain districts where in our view action needs to be taken soon to increase the effective supply of housing land during the period to 1993, Bearsden and Milngavie district is not one of the districts concerned. That is one of the key points which I seek to emphasise.

As the district council pointed out in its representations, it has a fair amount of land allocated for housing which has not yet been developed. This does not necessarily mean that no further land is needed for housing in the district in the years ahead—this is something which the district will have to discuss with the house builders in preparing its revised local plan—but it does mean that in a regional context Bearsden and Milngavie is not one of the districts where we perceive a particular shortage and I hope that both hon. Members will accept that assurance.

Mr. Worthington

I accept what the Minister says about the present position, but we are firing warning shots. There is a seven-year supply of building land and an unlimited demand by builders for permission to build. The Minister says that the matching of supply and demand has to be within a district council area. The implication is that the green belt will be threatened if the builders' estimate of demand has to be taken as the truth instead of considering the regional context and giving a proper role to both the district councils and the regional councils.

Lord James Doulgas-Hamilton

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to answer as many of his questions as possible. We have not gone all the way towards meeting the builders' arguments. We have consulted fully both the councils and the builders and have made the best assessment we can of demand and supply in the years to come. I accept that this is not an exact science; we have to use our best judgment, and we believe that we have done so.

My third point—it is not strictly relevant to the Bearsden and Milngavie district, because no target for additional housing land has been set for that district—is that in districts such as Strathkelvin, where action is needed to find additional housing sites, it does not follow that these sites need to be new green field sites. Many districts have sites allocated for housing which the house builders do not at present believe are likely to yield houses in the near future. In some cases, the sites are not being released by their owners, or there are difficulties over site servicing, ground conditions or other problems.

We believe that a joint examination of these sites by the district council concerned and the house builders could lead to many of them being accepted as effective. In addition, there remains scope in many areas for development on brown field sites in existing built-up areas. We believe, therefore, that many of the additional sites which are needed will be found without and not involving new green field development.

My fourth point is that the new policies that we have introduced have to be read as a whale and that they have to be read in conjunction with the other policies in the structure plan. That is a point which the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden raised. Bearsden and Milngavie district council drew particular attention to the wording of the policy called Res. 1, which states that each district council must bring forward and maintain a range of opportunities for house building. Read in isolation, that could be taken to imply endless green field residential development in each district, but it is specifically subject to Res. 2, which restates the long-standing presumption in the structure plan in favour of brown field rather than green field development.

In addition, the structure plan contains strong policies to protect the green belt, which are unaffected by the recent update. The new policies acknowledge that demand in one district may to some extent have to be accommodated in neighbouring districts—another point that the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden raised.

My right hon. and learned Friend and I therefore consider that the modifications made to the update do not present a major threat to the green field belt around Glasgow. Indeed, by encouraging district councils to sit down with the house builders and examine why sites already allocated for housing are not delivering a steady supply of houses, by re-emphasising the priority to be given to brown field sites and by requiring further housing sites to be found within Glasgow itself, the policies will help to take pressure off the green belt and reinforce the central strategy in the structure plan of encouraging the regeneration of the conurbation.

Giving encouragement to house builders, far from being counter-productive as the hon. Members suggest, will indirectly help the homeless, about which the hon. Members and their colleagues speak on many occasions. The major initiatives that we announced last month in Castlemilk and Ferguslie Park are evidence of our commitment to the strategy that I have mentioned.

I have already stated, in a parliamentary answer to the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) on 9 February—it is in column 64 of Hansard—that we do not expect the modifications that we have made to the update to have a significant effect on the existing green belt. Any boundary adjustments that are needed are most likely to arise in districts where targets for additional sites have been set. As Bearsden and Milngavie is not one of those districts, the policies in the update are even less likely to lead to significant adjustments to the boundary in that district.

As I have explained, I cannot predict how the policies will be interpreted in detail, or prejudge the conclusions that the district council reach in revising its local plans, but I hope that what I have said will allay some of the concern prompted by our modifications to the structure plan update.

Let me now comment more generally on our policy towards green belt and private house building. The Scottish Development Department's circular 24 of 1985 deals with development in the countryside and green belts. As it says, we attach great importance to the need to preserve the existing designated green belts, and to the need to establish confidence in their permanence. We believe that development in designated green belt should continue to be strictly controlled. Appropriate development control policies should be set out in structure plans.

Green belt policies can, however, remain stable only where a proper balance has been struck between the containment and the growth of urban development. Green belts should therefore be based on a long-term settlement strategy for the structure plan area, which provides adequately for such development as can be foreseen. If the green belt boundary is everywhere close to the boundary of the existing built-up area, it is likely to be under constant pressure because of the absence of room for expansion.

The three main purposes for which green belts have traditionally been established are to maintain the identity of towns by establishing clear boundaries and preventing coalescence, to provide countryside for recreation and other purposes and to maintain the landscape setting of towns. We expect authorities, in reviewing green belts, to consider carefully whether land within is making a significant contribution to those central objectives. Where it is not, there may be a case for releasing it for development to relieve pressure on other parts of green belt, or, alternatively, a case for taking positive steps to restore its value as green belt. In general, therefore, we remain strongly committed to the retention of effective green belts, and where cases are referred to us we will authorise development in green belts only in exceptional circumstances.

Let me return more closely to housing in the structure: plan. It has been suggested that the number of additional housing sites that the Secretary of State's modifications to the structure plan update require district councils to find is excessive, and that the Secretary of State has been influenced too much by the views of builders. I do not accept that. The Department's guidance on the provision of housing land, contained in circular 21 of 1983, states that in keeping the provision of housing land under review and assessing the demand for new private housing, planning authorities should work closely with representatives of the private house builders.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eighteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.