HC Deb 08 March 1990 vol 168 cc1100-8

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

10.16 pm
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to place before Parliament today an important issue which affects my constituents and many other citizens in Liverpool—the future of the public open spaces and parks in my city. I also wish to take the opportunity to thank the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, for being in his place to answer my questions. In passing, I also thank him for our correspondence on this important issue in the past few months, and for the help and advice that he has given to people concerned about the future of our parkland.

I must say at the outset to hon. Members who are not familiar with Liverpool that there is a caricature of the city which gives a distorted impression of broken-down buildings, acres of dereliction and festering decay. No doubt, as in any urban area, there are such features, but a more balanced picture of the city emerges when visitors discover many of the fine buildings in Liverpool, and when they see Liverpool's rich heritage and, above all, the pride of parks bequeathed by our Victorian forebears.

Liverpool's parks and open spaces have traditionally provided a much needed lung for residents trapped in congested living conditions—people who may not have the advantage of a private garden. For other people, they provide a green wedge breaking the urban sprawl. For others still, the parks are a place to enjoy leisure time and recreation. The playing fields, especially, are much used by members of amateur and junior football teams.

King John gave Liverpool its charter. Since medieval times, there has been a park in the Toxteth area of Liverpool. The poet William Roscoe was a Member of Parliament for three months in 1807, before he was thrown out for voting against the slavery laws. He was an eminent member of the anti-slavery movement, which was a brave thing in Liverpool in those days. Roscoe wrote a number of poems describing the beauty of Liverpool and its parkland on the riverside in Toxteth.

That parkland was rapidly eroded in the 19th century expansion of the city, and it then became municipally owned and administered. Sefton park, in the heart of my constituency, is its last vestige. It and other parks and open spaces in my constituency, such as those at Calderstones and Otterspool, Wavertree playground and Wavertree park, along with other important sites such as Childwall woods in the neighbouring constituency are all now subject to planning developments which will destroy their character.

I am staggered that when we hear such a vast amount of rhetoric from politicians of all parties about our responsibility towards the environment, Liverpool civic leaders should have such scant regard for environment destruction which will assist only the speculator and the profiteer.

In the heart of my constituency, in the Aigburth area, it is proposed to rip up the central reservation of a beautiful suburban area and to put there instead a trunk road bringing yet more heavy vehicles into that part of Liverpool. Similarly, it is suggested that the M62 motorway should be extended into the heart of my constituency, destroying in its path the botanic gardens founded by William Roscoe, to whom I referred.

That follows on the back of the destruction of places such as the Harthill gardens in Calderstones, which were destroyed during the period when militant members of the city ran the council and, in a philistine way, destroyed a collection of orchids which was world famous, pulling down the greenhouses there merely because there had been an industrial dispute and the men who worked in those greenhouses had refused to join the picket lines. As a vindictive act, that parkland was destroyed.

Apart from actions of that kind and the road schemes, why is the city council so intent on so much development of the city's remaining parks and open spaces? At the end of the financial crisis in 1986, when those militant Labour councillors were disqualified from office, the city's leaders had borrowed £60 million from Swiss and Japanese bankers to finance their policies.

The city debt rose to a phenomenal £678 million. Their subsequent inability to meet debt repayments irresponsibly plunged the city into penury. By 1987, the debt was£715 million. By 1988, it was £738 million and by 1989 it was £758 million. This year it topped £774 million. The interest alone to service that debt is £80 million this year. The council has budgeted in 1990 only £10 million to meet those debt charges, so inevitably the crippling burden increases inexorably and grows like Topsy. By the end of this century, the city's debt could be a staggering £1 billion. Every time interest rates rise by just 1 per cent., it costs Liverpool ratepayers £420,000.

Having followed such a fiscally irresponsible approach, the council now says that it must sell assets to pay for its past mistakes—not just the family silver, but the table and chairs as well. For London property speculators, it is like the Klondyke rush as they queue at Euston to take the train north in the fond belief that there is gold in the playing fields and parks of Liverpool. Because the market has been flooded, assets are being sold dirt cheap, so in every respect the city's ratepayers lose.

Along with my city council colleagues Beatrice Fraenkel, Don McKittrick, Len Tyrer and Bert Heritty, I have been urging the council to think again, and I hope that the Minister will deal with several points today. Following the consultation paper which his Department issued on 7 February, which recognises the problems caused by the way in which local authorities seek to grant themselves permission to develop such sites, does he now agree with the view of the Royal Town Planning Institute that no application should be determined by the authority promoting the development? Does he agree also that there can be no question of fairness or objectivity if the council is both defence and prosecution, judge and jury, developer and the assessor? It is positively Kafkaesque to behave in that way.

The former president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, Chris Shepley, said: Green space is an essential component of the civilised city. Urban green space should be defended as vigorously as green belt, possibly by the introduction of a new category of protected land. The value of private open space as an amenity in visual and ecological terms should be recognised. Those are the planning issues raised by such developments. Does the Minister agree that such applications should automatically be transferred to an independent inspector, perhaps appointed by the Secretary of State?

The Minister wrote to me on 5 March: On the planning issues my advice would be to continue to press the case with the City Council since the issues appear to be essentially local ones. He will know from the correspondence with the Friends of Childwall Woods and Fields and from its chairman, Mr. E. Feeney, that, without guarantees buttressed by the Secretary of State, simple appeals to the magnanimity arid decency of the local council will fall on deaf ears.

Mr. Feeney wrote: It does appear that the Minister has discretionary powers to 'call in' an application. It would we feel, be a great help to our cause and other causes if the Minister did intervene as we feel we have a good case and it would possibly deter the Council from contemplating further sales of open land. It is not just a local issue as the application would have implications for the whole city. I concur with that. Is the Minister prepared to call in applications to develop the sites and guarantee that there will be public inquiries?

With regard to the Department's role in the proper use of Liverpool's open spaces, the Minister answered a question that I tabled on 5 March about the international garden festival site in south Liverpool. Some of that land falls in my constituency and I applaud the fact that the Government spent £10.6 million on a major land reclamation project which became the biggest tourist attraction in the country. It was a brilliant scheme and caught the imagination of millions of people in Britain, but it now costs £200,000 per year to maintain the site, the future of which has not been properly thought out. It would be a terrible tragedy if the site were allowed to revert to its previous dereliction and decay.

Why should we not have a royal park designated on that site similar to the royal parks in London which are maintained by the Department of the Environment? Such a designation would be an important step. It would take the park out of the local remit, which would be highly appropriate as it was developed by the Merseyside development corporation, established by the Department. It is even more appropriate when one remembers that Her Majesty the Queen opened the international garden festival. For many reasons, the site could provide local people and visitors to the city with a wonderful resource which can be guaranteed only if the Department of the Environment and the Minister intervene rather than leaving it to local circumstances.

These issues must be seen against a bleak national and international picture of environmental dereliction and decay: 97 per cent. of our British wildflower meadows have been destroyed; 190,000 miles of hedgerow—enough to encircle the earth seven times—have disappeared; three quarters of our internationally important heaths and more than half our unique peat bogs have been destroyed. No fewer than 22 different flowering species have already been lost and many more face extinction. On a global scale, 60,000 plant species have disappeared and one in four of the world's total could be extinct in our lifetime.

Having heard the ecological, fiscal and social arguments, I hope that the House and the Minister will feel compelled to act on the recommendations that I have made today and to ensure that the appropriate guarantees are given so that even more of our precious open space is not destroyed.

10.28 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Cohn Moynihan)

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) for bringing a number of important issues to the attention of the House. I know that they are matters of concern to him and his constituents. I praise him for so assiduously representing the views of his constituents on these matters, in writing to me and in parliamentary questions. I hope that I have been able to satisfy him on at least some of the points that he has raised in correspondence and that we shall be able to cover a number of new matters this evening as well as going over the ground in slightly more detail on some questions that have been brought to our attention as a result of the hon. Gentleman's inquisitive mind.

There are a number of important issues that I should like to set in context. I am a Minister with some responsibility for planning as well as for inner cities and for sport, all three of which are covered by the matters that the hon. Gentleman has raised this evening, which are thus of considerable importance to me. It is vital that we safeguard recreational land in this country. Much recreational land, not least in our inner cities, is important, not just to the schools that it serves, where school playing fields are concerned, but in a wider sense to the community.

Between 1984 and 1994, nearly 1 million fewer children will be emerging from our schools than we have been used to. There are statutory obligations on schools and education authorities to provide playing fields and open space for those children as part of the educational process. We would be unwise to allow a rigorous correlation between the playing fields and the number of schoolchildren to lead to disposal of those playing fields, and then find, when the number of children starts to increase again, that we are not in a position to return what would then be built-up areas to recreational land.

For those reasons, I think that it is important that the Government should respond to many points that the hon. Gentleman has raised this evening, although I appreciate that they go wider than the educational issue. I am therefore pleased to announce that we shall be publishing a planning policy guidance note. It will cover a number of areas related to open space and playing fields to make sure that we protect them. I have considerable sympathy with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I think it is timely for the Government to come forward with a paper for consultation. We expect that it will be ready within a matter of months—it is hoped, only one or two months rather than four or five. That will give an opportunity to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who are keenly concerned about the provision of open space, allotments and playing fields to comment in detail.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of other important points, including the critical issue of call-in. As regards the discretionary powers available to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to call in some of the cases which he has raised, the hon. Gentleman would not expect me on this occasion—nor would it be right, in view of the quasi-judicial position of the Secretary of State—to comment on a specific case. But in many cases throughout the country, call-in powers have been exercised by my right hon. Friend. It is important that, in areas of wider local significance, or infringement of the green belt, or, for example, where clear guidance is laid down in local or regional plans and it could be open to question whether the planning system is being followed, my right hon. Friend should have the power to call in and should exercise it in the types of case that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am sure, since he is a very reasonable man, for not commenting specifically on some of the cases, because if I did so I would be prejudicing the quasi-judicial position of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of important issues about the garden festival site. The Department has just given clearance for the Merseyside development corporation to enter into negotiations with a company called Tomorrow's Leisure, and we expect to see the site developed and brought back into use shortly. Details are not available to me yet; they are subject to negotiations between the two parties. However, it is only reasonable given the right hon. Gentleman's concern on this issue and his interest in the subject, for me to draw to his attention details of the development and content of those negotiations as soon as they are available to me. That I undertake to do.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the designation of the site as a royal park. I can understand why he pushes so hard for this, and I hope that he will understand why such designation might not be appropriate. Royal parks are normally historical in nature and have a very important connection with the royal family. For that reason, it might be difficult, despite the connection that the hon. Gentleman has rightly made with the Queen's having opened the garden festival, to fulfil his wish that the site be designated a royal park as it does not satisfy the relevant criteria.

Mr. Alton

I touched on the length of time that there has been a royal park in this part of Liverpool. It goes right back to the founding of our charter and the time of King John. There was a royal hunting park in this part of Liverpool during the middle ages. I hope that the Minister will ponder on that when he considers these matters further.

Mr. Moynihan

There was much history in the hon. Gentleman's speech this evening on which I shall ponder, not least the history of some of our great poets and their association with the House, of which I was unaware until I was informed this evening. Additional historical evidence was brought to our attention, and I know, Mr. Speaker, that you would be especially interested in it.

These matters are worthy of further consideration in the specific context in which the hon. Gentleman has raised them. I give him an undertaking that I shall discuss with my officials the relevance of the historical evidence and whether it satisfies the criteria for designation. In my view, on the advice that I have been given to date, it does not. As the hon. Gentleman said, however, he has brought additional factors to the attention of the House that are worthy of detailed investigation. I shall take away his arguments, examine them in detail and respond to him in writing.

We are giving detailed consideration to the responses that are made to the consultation paper, and we shall respond in due course. I am only too well aware of Mr. Shepley's comments on green space and the green belt, and the Government are especially concerned to see the green belt protected and the value of green space respected. The planning system is critical. That is why we need a comprehensive structure, first and foremost, of local plans, but that will be successful only if we have an effective framework of structure plans and regional guidance. I hope that that will reduce much of the onus that is placed on the inspectorate and will respond to the demands that are placed upon it, not least in the type of cases to which the hon. Gentleman has rightly referred this evening, which would place an onus on its work. I give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking that we shall be considering carefully the issues which he has raised in the context of the consultation paper, which I acknowledge are important.

Having made those rather lengthy remarks as an introduction, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to comment in greater detail on the matters which he has raised with me in correspondence and touched on again this evening.

In this area the Government can do little to intervene, whatever our personal feelings about the rights and wrongs of the case. Within certain statutory guidelines, local authorities are free to manage their own holdings of land and property in their own way. The statutory guidelines are relevant to the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman in a number of ways.

First, at the stage of disposal of land, there is a general requirement that the best possible price is obtained. There is also a separate requirement that is specific to land that is designated as public open space. I am certain that that is the designation of most, if not all, of the sites that the council is now considering for disposal. In these instances, the council must advertise locally its intention to sell for two consecutive weeks. It has to invite objections and other representations. Most importantly, it has to give genuine and serious consideration to any such representations that it receives.

At a later stage, when potential developers are seeking planning permission, a further set of obligations come into play. Where there are large developments to take place, the council must notify my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State of any divergence from an adopted statutory development plan. If development of whatever size is proposed in a conservation area, the council must ensure that it is in line with conservation policies and of a sort that will enhance the character of the area. These requirements are additional to the generality of planning controls that also apply. They include, as the hon. Gentleman knows, all the normal mechanisms for appeal to my right hon. Friend.

As I understand the case that the hon. Gentleman has put, we are not now at the stage where any planning issues arise, though we may be in due course. On the issue of disposal of land, I am not aware of any suggestion that the statutory requirements that I have mentioned have not been complied with. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has himself consulted the district auditor on the issue and has been assured that there is no question about the legality of the disposals.

That is the formal position. By stating it, I do not mean to undervalue the hon. Gentleman's concern. The Government believe and have made it clear to local authorities on many occasions that the adequate provision of recreation opportunities is a vital part of the drive to regenerate our cities. In Liverpool, that belief has manifested itself in the support that we have given through the inner city partnership programme to a wide range of recreation-based projects.

The hon. Gentleman said that few hon. Members know the city, but I do and I share his concern about it. It would be of great benefit if more hon. Members had the opportunity to visit the city and get to know it. I worked for many years in Speke and it is always a pleasure to go back to see some of the developments that have taken place, but I share many of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has voiced this evening about the council's lack of effective management.

I recently opened a new hockey centre at Wyncote and a couple of years ago I visited the athletics centre at Wavertree and the Peter Lloyd sports centre in Tuebrook, one of four purpose-built sports centres provided through the partnership programme. The Park road athletics centre has recently been upgraded. The derelict land grant has supported the creation of a cycleway on the line of a former railway round the city, and the Mersey coast footpath is nearing completion, thanks to the urban programme. Perhaps most spectacularly, two entirely new public parks have been created in Everton and Speke.

All that shows that, with the help of Government grants, facilities are being provided which range from opportunities to train to international standard in several sports on the one hand, to giving local residents somewhere to walk on the other. One effect of that, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge, is that there has been a considerable increase in the amount of public open space within the city boundaries, even before we take into account the Merseyside development corporation's garden festival site, the first in the country.

At the same time, an ambitious programme is under way, again with urban programme support, to improve the quality of existing provision. Liverpool has for many years had a range of public parks that should be the envy of the country. Many of them, sadly, have fallen into disrepair, —but that too must be and is beginning to be tackled. Studies are in hand to assess the cost of refurbishing the magnificent palm house in Sefton park, footpath improvements are under way in Calderstones and Allerton parks, and there are proposals to reconstruct the lake in Newsham park.

I understand that the current programme of disposals has its origin in a review of the city's recreational strategy that was undertaken in 1987, in part as a contribution to the process of formulating Merseyside's unitary development plan. The second major factor in the programme was a separate review, during 1989, of education provision across the city. That was undertaken in response to the fall in school rolls that has been, as the hon. Gentleman knows, a national phenomenon, made more severe in Liverpool because of the continuing decline in the city's overall population.

A number of school sites, including some playing fields, were identified as surplus to educational requirements. All such sites were then assessed within the context of the city's recreational strategy, and some were retained, while others were still considered to be surplus to requirements. I have already mentioned my concern about that direct correlation and the need for clear guidance, and it is important that that planning policy guidance note should be distributed widely for consultation and comment.

I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree with me that, in principle at least, the planning policy guidance note and the review process should be welcomed. Nor could I, in all conscience, condemn out of hand the principle of making surplus assets available to the private sector for possible development, but we must ensure that they are surplus assets.

Those assets are there for people's use and we must maximise the involvement of the community in their use, making sure that we are responsive to community wishes for participation not just in sport but in other leisure and recreation activities as well. The presence of extensive park land is critical not only to the image of the city but to its regeneration and to the quality of life of the city's inhabitants.

I hope that the hon. Member will forgive me if I have not covered all the points that he has raised. Nevertheless, I trust that he will accept that I believe that one of the main purposes of Adjournment debates is to be a catalyst for further action and thought by Ministers in their responses to hon. Members who have taken the time and trouble to wait until the end of a busy day to express their anxieties.

I assure the hon. Member that I shall respond in full to any points that I have not had the opportunity to comment on, in addition to ensuring that he is properly briefed on the subjects I have mentioned, and I will ensure that the detail of his concerns is answered so that he may be able to add to the already rather lengthy correspondence in which we are engaged.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.