HC Deb 20 December 1999 vol 341 cc638-46

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

10.29 pm
Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

Before the House adjourns, I should like to raise the issue of the future development of the Cane Hill site in Coulsdon. Cane Hill represents more than 200 acres of green belt. It is a prime site of outstanding beauty and location. It sits on a hill top in the metropolitan greenbelt area to the south of London, adjacent to the A23 Brighton road. It is in the southern part of my constituency, in the southern part of the borough of Croydon, and it abuts the London-Surrey boundary and the seat of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), whom I am pleased to see in his place.

As a site, Cane Hill is attractive to any developer under any circumstances, and it offers first-class links to the motorway network and to Gatwick, Heathrow and Biggin Hill. It has a mainline rail station by its front entrance. It is, in short, a world-class site. Most of the site is agricultural, farmed by a local farmer. On about 20 per cent. of the site there is a small 23-bed medium secure unit for those with severe mental health problems, and there used to be a hospital, formerly for those with mental health needs, which closed in 1988.

Now, to the concern of my constituents, the NHS wishes to build a 120-bed medium secure unit. The matter is being considered by the planning committee of Croydon council at an open meeting early next year. The object of tonight's debate is to highlight to the Secretary of State, through his Minister, why I believe it should be the subject of a public inquiry.

The debate is not about the treatment of the mentally ill. It is about the determination of Labour-controlled Croydon borough council to push the project through, regardless of greenbelt regulations. There is a small group opposed to any mental health facilities on the site, but in my judgment, considering the presence of a small unit there already, that is unrealistic. I congratulate the Croydon Advertiser on its balanced articles on the work of the medium secure unit and on promoting awareness of its work.

The overwhelming majority of the people of Coulsdon and the surrounding area object to the dramatic expansion of the facility, the abuse of greenbelt procedures, and above all the elimination of any hope of worthwhile economic development on the site.

When the present administration on Croydon council—the Labour party—took control in 1994, it did so with a pledge to build a science and technology park on the site. Although that was not everyone's first preference, it was an acceptable proposal. Sadly, the council dithered, and in 1997 the Lambeth health authority stepped into the vacuum and proposed the construction of a 120-bed medium secure unit.

The recent history of the Cane Hill site is highly pertinent. In January 1996 a draft development brief for Cane Hill hospital was produced. In it, there was an indication from the South Thames regional health authority that the unit would need to be expanded to accommodate future health care needs. Relocation was a

clear option, and a number of possible alternative sites were mooted. The health authority was asked to investigate further.

Against that background, on 30 January 1997 the borough of Croydon adopted its unitary development plan. It recognised in paragraph RO 10 that Cane Hill could be redeveloped, and set out clear factors to be taken into account, as well the need to comply with planning policy guidance note 2, more commonly known as PPG2.

The plan recognised that there was a development brief for a science and technology park, but set out other uses consistent with policy RO 10 and listed them in descending order of preference as a science park, business innovation centre, a technology centre, environmental research centre, university, business park or regional conference centre. As a throwaway at the end, the plan stated:

The Development brief may allow for other uses or a combination of uses. There was no reference to a new medium secure unit, let alone one on the scale that is currently being considered.

On the map in the UDP, the area is marked as a metropolitan greenbelt site of borough-wide importance for nature conservation.

If further evidence were needed of the council's position when the unitary development plan was adopted, it is available in a letter dated 8 January 1997 from the leader of the council, who is now the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Davies). He wrote to the Government on behalf of the council about the medium secure unit. The letter stated:

This would be a new development that would go well beyond an extension of the existing SASS unit and would, in all probability, put an end to the Science and Technology Park proposal that the Council, SOLOTEC and NHS ESTs advisers had been working towards over the last two to three years. The letter tellingly continued:

I would suggest, therefore, that Cane Hill should be excluded from any search for a site for a new MSU. It is ironic that, having lumbered us with a science park, the hon. Gentleman has abandoned that view and now supports a park and ride scheme. However, that is another story.

Further evidence of the council's opposition to a medium secure unit and the lack of any intention to include it in the science park is found in a briefing to Members of Parliament and councillors, dated 24 January 1997. It emphasised that the aim was to establish a successful science park at Cane Hill, and stated that, in the council's judgment, a medium secure unit would be detrimental to a successful park development. The briefing stated:

There would also be a marketing issue … of the perception of an MSU, by investors, developers and potential tenants. Urgent political lobbying is required to ensure that the acknowledged benefits to the London economy of a science park are not compromised or possibly sacrificed to—the NHS service requirements". That view, which the council expressed, highlights the impact of a medium secure unit on a science park. It is somewhat surprising to find that the council has now changed its mind.

After the general election in May 1997 and the change of Government, the council and I jointly sought a meeting with the Secretary of State for Health to discuss the site. Before the meeting, the new council leader, Councillor Shawcross, issued a press release in July. It stated that she hoped that the meeting with the Department would result in the

"NHS looking to meet their own service requirements from elsewhere in their land-holdings."

That is, not on Cane Hill. That was the position before the meeting with the Department.

The meeting took place with a junior Health Minister, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), who is now a Minister of State in the Home Office. At the meeting, he confirmed that he intended a medium secure unit for approximately 50 beds to be built on the site. The application for a 120-bed medium secure unit was therefore a surprise. That happened despite the representations that had been made to me at the meeting. It is disappointing to find that a Minister misled a constituency Member of Parliament in that way.

The most devastating blow to the plan was the subsequent U-turn by the leader of the council. After the meeting, she wrote to the Minister to thank him for his positive attitude. She said that she left the meeting feeling

"real pride that our Labour Government has Ministers of such outstanding ability and commitment".

That was written by someone who had been told that she would get the opposite of what she had requested. The letter continued:

"the proposed MSU on the old Portnalls House part of the site is certain to be controversial with local residents. But I personally accept these are necessary facilities to fulfil the healthcare needs of the community. Although naturally disappointed that the scope for economic development has been substantially reduced, the Council will be as supportive as possible."

The council changed its position at that point—quite a U-turn in only a few weeks. From that moment, the die was cast.

Croydon council planning committee is due to consider the application to build a medium secure unit early next year. The Minister will probably be as surprised as me to hear that the number of protesters against the application is believed to be more than 4,000. That shows the importance and relevance of the matter to the local community.

The Minister may not fully appreciate that the medium secure unit will not be built on the footprint of the old Cane Hill hospital. The council is taking the square footage of the old hospital, adding to it, splitting it in two, moving one bit to the other side of the site and putting bits of green belt in its place. The plan is to build the MSU on one bit and the science park on the other. I have to tell the Minister, and I hope that she agrees, that such messing around with the green belt will be detrimental to its quality. In my judgment, the openness of the green belt in the Coulsdon area will be diminished and a contribution will be made to urban sprawl, because the site is immediately adjacent to the built-up area of London.

The Minister will be well aware that the key to all that is in the rules to PPG2 and paragraph C4 of annexe E, which deals with redevelopment in the green belt, and it is the view of many that they are being ignored by the council. Extensive correspondence with the council reflects its determination to have its way, and although it argues that it is complying with paragraph C4, I and several thousand others suggest that it is not. It is difficult to see how the criteria in paragraph C4 can be met, as the proposal will clearly have a greater impact on the openness of the green belt: first, there will be new building in an open area—further from the urban area—and secondly, it offends the greenbelt purposes of checking the unrestricted sprawl of large urban areas, safeguarding the country from encroachment and encouraging the recycling of derelict land.

I quote the submission by the Croydon Society, which said:

The prevention of urban sprawl would be negated and openness would be reduced by the development of the Portnalls site. Yet these qualities are cited in PPG 2 para 1.4 as the most important attributes of green belts. As the Coulsdon Green Belt Association says, some kind of development must eventually take place within the existing footprint at Cane Hill,

"but the application violates six acres of green belt without establishing the 'very special circumstances' which ministerial guidelines require before waiving the normal presumption against development in the green belt area may be considered."

The much respected Mr. Charles Hancock of the Coulsdon Forum says that PPG2

"sets out Green Belt safeguards which this planning application seriously ignores".

I hope that the Minister has been given a flavour of what is being said locally. This is a major site and clearly she must consider matters that have more than local importance—I choose my words carefully.

My second submission to the Minister is that an MSU of the nature of that being considered represents a departure from the unitary development plan. That in turn imposes on the Secretary of State an obligation to call in the application and hold a public inquiry. The council has fiercely resisted that suggestion: it wants to push the plan through without a public inquiry, but its impartiality cannot be guaranteed. It must be remembered that the entire site belongs to the national health service, and to develop the science and technology park the council needs NHS approval to sell it for that purpose.

It is becoming clear that the council is prepared to give permission to build the MSU regardless of the environmental and social consequences, to get its way with the park. That was confirmed in a letter to me dated 28 October in which the leader of the council said that

"the NHS has always indicated that the principle of relocation and expansion of the MSU needs to be resolved before disposal of the remainder of the site … I can assure you that a considerable amount of time has been spent with the NHS to pave the way for a mutually agreeable outcome."

In other words, a deal has been struck: "We'll let you build an MSU and then you'll let us have our science park." To that extent, the council's eyes are blinkered and its judgment is suspect. After seven years of dither over the science park, it has done a deal with Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham health authority, but in my judgment the council ought not to be entrusted with the decision on the future of one of the nation's prime development sites.

As the Minister might imagine, there is widespread local concern. The proposed development is bang next door to two primary schools, and stories of the conduct of patients out on day release are legion and at odds with official statistics. As Councillor David Osland said in a letter to the Croydon Advertiser:

Coulsdon for many years enjoyed a satisfactory relationship with Cane Hill Hospital and its thousands of patients and staff. But the nature of the proposed MSU was such that it ought to be built on a brown-field site attached to a hospital with a proper level of Psychiatric services, not built on green belt as a sop to developers who may be put off by the close proximity of the existing MSU. That fairly reflects local opinion.

If this application goes through, the science park will not get off the ground. The application is not included in the unitary development plan and is a departure. There is a clear breach of the policy guidelines relating to the green belt, and the council is clearly not impartial. Under the circumstances, I urge the Secretary of State, through the Minister, whom I welcome, to exercise his powers and call it in.

10.45 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) on securing a debate on issues that are currently of considerable concern in his constituency. I listened with interest to the points that he made. From the letters received by my Department, I am aware of the strength of local feeling about the proposals for the site. The hon. Gentleman's contribution gave further flavour to the issue, as he hoped.

Two planning applications have been made in respect of this site: one is for a larger secure unit than the one already on the site, and the other is the proposed science and business park. As a member of the Opposition Front Bench, the hon. Gentleman should know the planning system well enough to be aware that neither I nor any of my ministerial colleagues can comment on planning applications, because to do so may compromise the Secretary of State's quasi-judicial role in considering the case for call-in or in taking a decision in the event that Croydon council resolve to refuse planning permission and the applicant submits an appeal.

As I have already said in correspondence with the hon. Gentleman, we are keeping these applications under review, but we will allow the council time to reach a view on the proposals before deciding whether call-in is justified. For reasons that I shall touch on and of which the hon. Gentleman is aware, Croydon has postponed its formal consideration of the matter in committee until February or March next year.

Croydon received the application for the medium secure unit in March 1999. The process of conducting public consultation has raised issues on the safety of local residents on which the council has sought advice. The time scale involved is completely justified by the nature of the application, by local opinion and by the complexity of the issues involved in making the decision. Having taken account of the time scale, I find it hard to accept the hon. Gentleman's assertion that Croydon is trying to push through the application for a medium secure unit. By the time the council considers the application, it will have taken a year for it to come to a decision. It is taking that time because of the need for expert advice and the issues raised by the case.

The business park application was also made in March this year. I understand that the council has now asked for an environmental assessment from the applicant, and that

is being prepared. The application involves other complex issues in addition to those raised by the hon. Gentleman, including the imminent construction of the Coulsdon inner relief road, which may give rise to design changes to the proposals.

The Secretary of State's role in the planning process means that he has at his disposal the power to call in an application. I understand from what the hon. Gentleman said and from correspondence that we have received that he does not agree with Croydon's preliminary view that the application for a medium secure unit is not a departure from the unitary development plan. I have seen the correspondence that he has received from the director of planning and development, which sets out in some detail why Croydon has come to the decision on paragraph C4 and the other requirements of the regulations, and why it argues that the application is not a departure from the UDP. If it were a departure, it would have to be referred to the Secretary of State now as a call-in.

At present, this is a matter for the council to decide. In the light of the hon. Gentleman's comments, we shall consider carefully whether that power should be exercised, and, if so, when; but, for the moment, the Secretary of State is exercising his power of call-in in the normal way. As under the last Administration, it is normal practice to use the power of call-in sparingly. It is important that applications are generally left in the first instance to the locally elected body to determine, and are called in only if, among other things, matters of more than local importance are involved.

Although the Secretary of State has power to call in at any time, it is our practice, for good reasons, to let the authority consider an application and reach a view before the Department decides whether to call in. That enables all local and statutory consultees' views to be taken into account and aired publicly; and an application refused by the authority would come before the Secretary of State as an appeal anyway.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

The institution that we are discussing is on the boundary between Croydon and the borough of Reigate and Banstead. My borough has asked for a call-in. I hope that the fact that the institution is on the boundary will carry some weight with the Secretary of State in due course.

Ms Hughes

As I have said, we are cognisant of the contentious and complex nature of the application. I am trying to explain why it is important for the local authority to be allowed to make a decision in the first instance. It brings into the open all the various local views pertaining to the application. That means that, should the Secretary of State decide to call in the application subsequently—which he is perfectly entitled to do—those local views will be in the public domain, and will be available for him to consider if, in the event, he calls the application in.

We are executing normal procedure by allowing Croydon to reach an initial view on the applications. When it has done so, if necessary, we may well issue a holding direction to allow ourselves time to examine Croydon's decision, the reasons for its decision and its report to its planning committee, and to decide whether to intervene and call in either or both the applications.

The views of both the hon. Member for Croydon, South and the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) will be taken into account.

I stress that our feeling that it is important to let Croydon make the initial decision does not mean that the Secretary of State will not exercise his power of call-in later. There are, however, distinct advantages in allowing the local planning authority to make an initial decision, because that puts all local views into the public domain.

I cannot comment on the specific applications, but I will make some general and relevant comments about the planning system and about the green belt. The planning system regulates the development and use of land in the public interest. We believe that the system as a whole—which includes the preparation of development plans by local authorities such as Croydon—is the most effective way of reconciling what are often competing demands for development and for the protection of the environment. The planning system has a key role in contributing to the Government's strategy for sustainable development.

The Government are committed to a plan-led system of development control. That means that any application for planning permission, or any appeal, should be determined in line with the approved development plan—as the hon. Member for Croydon, South said—unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Whoever decides such planning applications and appeals—whether it be a local planning authority such as Croydon, a planning inspector deciding an appeal or, indeed, the Secretary of State—should always take into account whether the proposed development would cause demonstrable harm to openly important interests. Our aim in the plan-led system is to secure rational and consistent decisions, greater clarity, secure public involvement, quicker decisions and so on. Material considerations must be genuine planning considerations. They must relate to the purpose of planning law, which is to regulate the development and use of land in the public interest.

Where it is not already incorporated into their development plans, local planning authorities also need to take into account national and regional planning guidance. The national guidance is set out in various planning policy guidance notes. In London, the regional guidance is in the strategic guidance for London planning authorities—RPG3, as it is known.

Croydon council has to take its adopted UDP policies as a starting point and weigh up other material considerations in reaching its decision on any planning application that is before it. In particular, it has to have regard to PPG notes, especially if they are more recent than the policies that are outlined in its own UDP.

On another general point, the Government recognise and uphold the rights of property and privileges of ownership, so owners of land and property rightly expect to be able to use, or to develop their land as they judge best, unless consequences for the environment, or the community would be unacceptable. Therefore, individual property owners are allowed to enhance, or to improve their use of land and buildings.

I turn to a key issue for any application at Cane Hill: the green belt. I hope that I do not have to restate the Government's support and, indeed, record in protecting and increasing the green belt. We remain firm in those commitments, which I have stated personally recently. Some hon. Members have raised concerns, prompted by headlines in a recent edition of the London Evening Standard. The claims that we are not supporting the green belt are not true.

In relation to Croydon, annexe C of PPG2 says that redevelopment, or infilling of major developed sites—a particular defined category in the regulations—in the green belt may offer the opportunity for environmental improvement, without adding to the impact on the openness of greenbelt land. Such redevelopment, or infilling will not be inappropriate development in law if sites are identified in adopted development plans. Examples of major developed sites will include hospitals. Such sites must be substantial in size. In that context, I understand that Cane Hill is identified as a major developed site—a specific category—in Croydon's current adopted UDP.

As well as identifying a site for the purposes of annexe C, local planning authorities may set out in their plan a policy for future development. Even once a site is so identified, PPG2 contains criteria that constrain redevelopment. Those say that it should have no greater impact than the existing development on the openness of the green belt and should contribute to the achievement of objectives. There are others limiting height and footprint, but there is no requirement that the existing footprint of buildings should be maintained to satisfy those criteria.

Therefore, we will monitor carefully the proposals at Cane Hill. I have heard the points made by the hon. Member for Croydon, South. Those are not agreed at this stage by Croydon.

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 one minute to Eleven o'clock.