§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sackville]
§ 9 am
§ Mr. George Gardiner (Reigate)
I wish to raise on the Adjournment the modifications proposed by the Secretary of State for the Environment to the draft Surrey structure plan so far as they affect the town of Horley.
Horley is at the southern end of my constituency, immediately north of Gatwick airport. In 1974 it had some 10,000 residents. Thanks to planning decisions since, the number has grown to more than 22,000, resulting in severe strain on its infrastructure, most notably roads and drainage. Further to the north of the town lies the metropolitan green belt, but between it and the green belt lie some 1,200 acres of land currently defined as white land, to which green belt policies allegedly apply.
Accordingly, when in July 1985 Surrey county council published its consultative draft of proposed alterations to the 1980 structure plan, the council proposed running the green belt south to Charlwood, only excluding Horley and its "immediate" surroundings. But in March 1988, when the Secretary of State issued his proposed modifications, he suggested removing the word "immediate", on the grounds that these 1,200, acres should be reserved for possible housing development after the structure plan expires in the year 2001. Thus this one word "immediate" has immense significance, since its removal offers the prospect of Horley more that doubling its population in the early years of the next century, absorbing the parish of Salfords and of severely narrowing what is regarded as green belt.
The Secretary of State made his proposal following an examination in public of the consultative draft, held in Dorking in February 1987, when the panel appointed by him advised against drawing the green belt tightly round Horley. My hon. Friend and I have had considerable correspondence on this, and twice I have described this consultation process as being "severely flawed", in that 11 firms of builders and developers were directly represented, as against just one representative from Reigate and Banstead borough council. There were no representatives invited from Dorking town council nor from Salfords and Sidlow parish council, and no representative from any residents' association or amenity society in the area. My hon. Friend has replied that their interests were represented by someone from the Surrey Association of Town and Parish Councils and another respresentative from the Surrey Amenity Society respectively.
I do not want to make a lot of this in the short time available, but I am afraid that my hon. Friend has missed the point. At this examination in public, 11 firms of builders and developers were represented directly; the elected councils and residents' associations most immediately affected were allowed representation only indirectly. So long as there is such inequality of representation at examinations in public, the Secretary of State will go on facing accusations that he gives greater weight to the interests of builders and developers than to those people in a locality most affected. Given this unequal representation, it is hardly surprising that the panels came to the conclusion that it did, or that the Secretary of State should then propose deleting that word "immediate".
In May 1988 Surrey county council accepted the 262 proposed modification, but before it had been considered by the local planning authority, the Reigate and Banstead borough council, which was in the process of drawing up its draft local plan. In September 1988 the borough council approved its draft, which did draw the green belt boundary tightly round Horley. This local plan was then referred to the county, since it did not conform with the county's decision four months previously, and in November 1988 the county decided to take no action until the Secretary of State decided whether to proceed with his proposed modification.
So now we have the local planning authority strongly in favour of drawing the green belt tightly round Horley, and the county taking a neutral position. The only ones in favour of keeping those 1,200 acres out of the green belt for possible development after 2001 are the Secretary of State and, of course, the developers.
Yet the Secretary of State has been proclaiming to the Conservative party conference, advising in seminars and writing in newspapers that he wantslocal planning to be a local responsibility. It is not something that I can do from the centre, but it needs to be done well and it needs to be done locally.That quote is from the Daily Telegraph of 1 August 1988. Well, either he means it or he does not, and what he eventually decides on his proposed modification at Horley will he the test.
My hon. Friend the Minister seeks to allay local fears by claiming, in his letter to me of 1 March this year, that if development of this land were to take place it would only be in the longer term—after 2001. To be fair to him, I quote from his letter:If this conclusion were to be incorporated into the finally approved form of the Structure Plan, I would expect the Borough Council's Local Plan to include policies to the effect that land excluded from the Green Belt on this basis was not available for development while the Plan was in force. Such a policy would be given considerable weight at appeals, as the recent record shows.He then cites a decision at Runnymede this January.
I do not know about Runnymede, but I can tell my hon. Friend that the record of appeal decisions concerning this white land around Horley shows the very reverse In the last 15 years, 2,400 new houses have been built at Horley on land to which allegedly "green belt policy applies". Furthermore, I can tell him that developers have already purchased options to build on many of those 1,200 acres—and they are certainly not expecting to have to wait until 2001. Without full green belt protection for this land, applications to build and appeals against local planning refusals will come bounding in, and there is no faith locally that the decisions of the Department of the Environment's inspectors will be any different from before.
Finally, I come to perhaps my most important point, which I have possibly not developed forcefully enough in my correspondence with my hon. Friend, yet which is as relevant after 2001 as it is now. That concerns the width of the metropolitan green belt.
In a letter dated 14 April 1980, Mr. Thomson of the Department of the Environment, writing on behalf of the then Secretary of State to Surrey county council giving approval to the 1980 structure plan, referred toa preferred minimum width or depth of the Metropolitan Green Belt around London to be 12 to 15 miles.I repeat, a minimum of 12 to 15 miles. If Reigate and Banstead borough council's draft local plan is adopted without modification, the width of the green belt between Purley and the Sussex border south of Horley will be 11.5 263 miles. If the Secretary of State's proposed modification prevails, the width of the green belt will be fixed at 9.5 miles.
The logic of the Department's position would seem to be that a width of 12 to 15 miles was desirable in 1980, that a width of 11.5 miles of green belt and white land to which green belt policies allegedly apply is acceptable in 1989, but that after 2001, the width of the green belt could come down to 9.5 miles. I put the question straight to my hon. Friend: is he prepared to contemplate a green belt narrowed to 9.5 miles after 2001? If so, that will have implications far away from Horley.
We would find Horley coalescing with Salfords to the north and with Smallfield to the east, creating a new town of 55,000 inhabitants just three miles away from the existing new town of Crawley. Is that what the Secretary of State wants? If he does, let him have the honesty to say so. If he does not, he must withdraw his proposed modification of the Surrey structure plan—and in so doing, stay true to all that he said aboutlocal planning to be a local responsibility.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner) on securing the debate. As he said, the matter has been canvassed in correspondence between us, and I hope that my remarks will allay the concerns of some of my hon. Friend's constituents.
Before dealing with specific points, I shall set out the current position. The Surrey structure plan first alteration was submitted for approval in June 1986. A public examination of the provisions of the alteration was held in February 1987, and the panel reported in July 1987. It made its recommendations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, and in April 1988 he announced the terms of his proposed alterations to that structure plan and invited comments.
The terms of the final approval are still under consideration, and I know that my hon. Friend will understand that I am unable to comment in detail on the merits of the issues that he raised. However, I shall make a few observations.
My hon. Friend raised the matter of the scale and location of the Horley development and the question of where the green belt boundary should be drawn. That was explicitly considered at the public examination, when the panel considered both the housing issue in the Horley area and that of the outer boundary of the green belt. Its conclusions were explicit. While recognising that there is long-term potential for development, it concluded that there is no case at present for a large-scale development in the Horley area. However, the panel stated that the area's long-term development potential should be taken into account when the green belt boundary is drawn.
That recommendation is in line with national planning policy guidance that green belt boundaries should not be so tightly drawn around existing settlements that either all future development is proscribed or, more plausibly, that green belt boundaries have to be breached and the integrity of the green belt undermined. The panel noted 264 that there had been much new development in Holley and that time should be allowed for it to be absorbed into the existing settlement.
The panel recognised that infrastructure problems connected with any substantial new development would need to be carefully considered and be resolved by negotiation before major development is permitted. It recommended that when the local plan drew the detailed boundary of the green belt, it should exclude "Horley and its surroundings" rather than, as had formerly been the case,Horley and its immediate surroundings.In making that recommendation, the panel recognised that it would alter the policy in existence for the area since 1980, but concluded that circumstances had changed since then. The plan under consideration now looks forward to the year 2001, and it must be recognised that growth in the Crawley/Gatwick area between 1989 and 2001 is expected to continue and that the plan must take account of that fact.
It is worth noting that in the draft modifications my righ hon. Friend did not seek to increase the housing allocation for Horley in any substantial way, beyond that already in the submitted plan. Nor, as I made clear, did he seek to dissociate himself from the panel's view that any development that might take place would only do so in the long term. My right hon. Friend recognised that Horley needs time to absorb recent large-scale developments before additional ones are committed. There is a world of difference between declining to place an area in the green belt and allocating that area for development.
My hon. Friend questioned the validity of the examination in public. I must say that I find it difficult to accept that the EIP process was flawed simply because not all those who would have liked to have spoken were given the opportunity to do so. If that were to happen, the whole procedure could become extremely protracted. Indeed, section 9(5) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, as amended, states clearly that there is no automatic right to be heard at an EIP without invitation from the Secretary of State or the panel.
What is vitally important is that all the main issues are raised and properly discussed and that all the relevant points are brought, through the panel, to my right hon. Friend's attention. Invitations to appear before the examination in public are therefore issued with a view to ensuring that the full range of interests are represented and that no particular point of view goes unheard.
I think that the record of the proceedings of the Surrey EIP speaks for itself. A number of development interests were represented, but were counterbalanced by local amenity interests. I am confident that the cases both for and against further development at Horley were clearly put, and that the panel reported the arguments with equal fairness. It is important to remember that the primary duty both of a panel and of my right hon. Friend is not to find a middle course between conflicting private interests, but to ensure that planning decisions are made in the broader public interest. The reasons for the panel's recommendations are set out fully in its report.
I cannot accept my hon. Friend's argument that the process was undemocratic. The district council, as the democratically accountable local body, represents local views. Again, the record shows that those views were clearly presented and taken into account. The panel's report shows a clear appreciation of both sides of the 265 question. But even if that were not the case, it is open to anybody—including those who did not appear at the examination—to make representations and objections to my right hon. Friend following the publication of his modifications. He will take into account all those views before making a final decision, and the views expressed in the Chamber today by my hon. Friend will be considered before the final decision is made. I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept that the arguments that he has deployed today and on previous occasions are a very good summary of the arguments against what is proposed by the panel.
My hon. Friend attempted to suggest that the structure plan process was a negation of local responsibility for planning. He has questioned whether my right hon. Friend is really committed to a planning system in which responsibility rests with the locally elected district council. Let me assure the House that my right hon. Friend is committed to such a system. Both planning policy guidance note No 12 on local plans and the recently published White Paper "The Future of Development Plans" clearly show that.
It must be recognised, however, that local decisions cannot be made in isolation. The planning policies of district councils must have regard to the scale and type of demand affecting the region in which they are situated, and to national planning policies. Without broader guidance it would be almost impossible for a district council to formulate appropriate policies.
Local plans must be seen in a strategic context. My hon. Friend seemed to suggest that the local district council should be responsible for strategic as well as local planning, but I cannot agree with him. We fully recognise the right of the local council to have responsibility for local planning, but responsibility for strategy must rest elsewhere.
Similar considerations apply to the principle of the green belt. The green belt seeks to control and restrain growth over a wide area, and the issues arising from that often go far beyond the areas of a single district council. As a Government we must seek to respect the wishes of local residents about the proper development of their area, but that must be tempered with broader considerations of regional or national importance.
The Government have consistently upheld green belt policy, emphasised the permanence of the green belt and stressed that its protection should be maintained for the foreseeable future. Once the general extent of a green belt has been approved, it should be altered only in the most exceptional circumstances. It is necessary in the context of structure and local plans to establish boundaries that will endure, and that are carefully drawn so that they do not include land which it is unnecessary or inadvisable to keep permanently open. Thus we advise local authorities at the stage of defining their green belt—as in the present case at Horley—that proposals in structure plans or local plans that affect green belts should he related to a time scale longer than that normally adopted for other aspects of the plan. That approach is a long-standing element of green belt policy, and was stated in January 1988 in planning policy guidance note No. 2.
Horley is not the only place in the south-east which has accommodated significant growth in recent years, and where the possibility of further development—however remote—has raised local concern. But we cannot pull up the drawbridge on all new development. New development means proper homes for people who need them. In the 266 south-east those people looking for homes are largely the sons and daughters of existing residents. An additional pressure on the south-east in the 1990s will be that of one-person households; this in part reflects the need of people who are already in the region as they live longer. It would not be justifiable to seek to adopt a planning policy for the region which sought to frustrate or deny these quite reasonable requirements. I know that most people are reluctant to have development in their own back yards, but we have to recognise that there is a justifiable pressure for increased development and this development must be accommodated somewhere. As my right hon. Friend said in his June 1986 letter to the chairman of the south-east regional planning conference, our aim is to cater for much of this requirement by a process which is well related to the pattern of settlement. This is what the Surrey structure plan and all those with a responsibility for drawing it up, are seeking to achieve.
I can understand the views of those who would like no development to take place in the area in question and lean understand that they see a green belt designation as the ultimate deterrent to development—and indeed it would be. But if my right hon. Friend accepts that the area is appropriate for long-term development, then the question is how can it be protected in the short term. I have already explained that it would be inappropriate to leave it in the green belt. Green belt status is not the only way of controlling development proposals. The whole process of drawing up, consulting, and approving local plans within the context of a structure plan is intended to identify in detail where development should go and where it should be restrained.
My hon. Friend referred to my letter to him setting out the possible scenario were the examination in public recommendations to be concerned. My letter outlined the emphasis which could be placed on the local plan which the borough council could draw up. It could identify precisely the area of land involved, propose policies echoing the structure plan approval, and declare that for the lifetime of the plan the land was not seen as being appropriate for development. If, despite such policies, planning applications were made for development, and on being turned down by the council went to appeal, the inspector hearing the appeal would give considerable weight to the policies in the local plan. I cannot therefore agree that a failure to include this area in the green belt, will automatically see it being developed in the next few years. My hon. Friend fears that possibility, but he is more concerned that the area will be liable for development beyond 2001. It is absolutely certain that more land will be needed for development as the years go by. If we are to maintain the integrity of a green-belt policy, it must be a long-term policy. That is what we are trying to achieve.
My hon. Friend referred to the width of the metropolitan green belt. The green belt varies in size, In some areas it is very narrow and in other areas it is wider. We have set out the latest green belt policy in a planning policy guidance note in which we make no reference to the width of the green belt. We emphasise the permanence of the green belt and the need to have precise boundaries and set out the objectives which the green belt serves. My hon. Friend will discover that many green belt areas around the country are much narrower than the nine miles that he feels would be inadequate in his constituency.
I hope that I have given some reassurance to my hon. Friend. I congratulate him on the persistence with which 267 he has deployed his arguments on behalf of his constituents who are understandably concerned. I hope 268 that he will realise that we are discussing the long term—beyond 2001—rather than the prospect of a substantial immediate additional development in the Horley area.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty three minutes past Nine o'clock.