HC Deb 10 November 1999 vol 337 cc1261-8

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

11.50 pm
Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

After a debate as momentous as this evening's, when we ended 800 years of our history with the imposition of a halfway house of yes-men placed by the Prime Minister, a debate on greenbelt land in a small village in Somerset may seem inconsequential. However, it is not only of great importance to people who live in the village but a classic example of what is happening up and down this land, where local residents living in rural communities are battling against often inappropriate developments.

I do not expect hon. Members to know where Long Ashton is, but, for those who are interested, it lies south of Bristol in the north of my constituency, in north Somerset. The village has a treasured mediaeval history and a strong local identity. Although it lies closer to Bristol than any other village in my constituency, it is definitely part of north Somerset.

Woodspring is not a not-in-my-backyard constituency. It has taken more of than its share of development in recent years. The towns of Clevedon, Nailsea and Portishead have all taken large expanses of new house building because we recognise that new houses need to be built and that people need to live somewhere. In particular, those who have grown up in local communities need some continuity through the availability of housing in those places. A recent example of how people feel let down is the development in East Portishead, which was supposedly going to take the housing allocation for that part of north Somerset. It is not yet complete, but new large-scale house building developments are proposed without any other local infrastructure being provided.

The development that I am discussing tonight lies south of the Long Ashton road, on a hillside overlooking the Long Ashton bypass. Anyone who has taken that road south of Bristol will know that the village is set on a large expanse of hillside green belt which would disappear under the development. Six previous inquiries have given reasoned argument against building houses on this greenfield site. We believe that the inspector in the most recent inquiry took a cavalier approach to the development. Many believe that we are witnessing the rape of the rural south-west and that developers will not be happy until large parts of the rural south-west are concreted over and an urban conurbation running from the southern border of Bristol to Weston-super-Mare and the sea is created.

Several general questions arise. First, many suspect, in my constituency and well beyond, that the dice are loaded too heavily in favour of the developers. When inquiry after inquiry has found in favour of local residents, it takes only one to find in favour of the developers, and the land is gone for ever. The local residents have to fight on and on and on, but the developers have to be lucky only once. That is not a party political point but something that is felt up and down the country in constituencies represented by hon. Members of all parties. There is a problem of local accountability because the developers seem to have everything stacked in their favour.

There is a second democratic question to be answered. Given that the local Member of Parliament, the district councillor, the district council, the local councillors, teachers, doctors, environmentalists, parents—in fact, everyone involved in the local community—oppose the development, how can an inspector who has no links with the area, no understanding of the area and no share in its values come in after so many inquiries have taken place, adopt the contrary view and suddenly decide that the green land is to disappear for ever? The Minister who is to reply to the debate wrote to me, saying: I appreciate that this outcome may disappoint you and a number of your constituents, but I can assure you that the decision to grant planning permission was taken only after the most careful consideration of the evidence submitted by the interested parties. Every single interested party—other than the developers, of course—opposed the development, so the final outcome appears to reflect a strange balance of the interests.

The policies of Governments past and present dictate that no development should take place in the sort of green rural area represented by the site in question. Apart from the obvious destruction of a valuable amenity, the fact that certain specific principles of housing have been ignored causes great concern. Like us, the Government believe that new houses and jobs should be created together. The development in Long Ashton would simply increase commuter traffic to Bristol; there are already long queues out of the village at peak times. There are no alternative routes and more commuters will make matters far worse.

That goes against present Government policy and is to the detriment, not only of the local community, but of the Bristol highways authority, which is desperately trying to reduce traffic entering the city. Brownfield sites in Bristol should be used for residential development, rather than for increasing office premises, because there are already far too many people travelling in and out of Bristol each day. Modern electronic communications mean that there is no need for offices to be located close to each other. In addition, although any development should be designed to maintain, as far as is possible, the traditional characteristics of the local community, the development in question threatens Long Ashton in a way that is utterly inconsistent with that principle.

We have been dealt a second blow: not only has the development that will result in the destruction of a large area of the green land surrounding the village been given the go-ahead, but we have learned that the Long Ashton research station is to be closed. We discovered that, not in the normal way through a statement being made, but via a press release and a letter from Lord Sainsbury dated 5 August. He writes: As you know, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council…have been reviewing the future development of the Institute of Arable Crops Research, of which the Long Ashton Research Station forms part, and it has reached the conclusion detailed in the enclosed press release. This involves concentration of research and investment at the Rothamsted site"— in Hertfordshire— and phased withdrawal from Long Ashton, with the transfer of some of the staff and work to Rothamsted. In an example of hand washing that makes Pontius Pilate look like an amateur, Lord Sainsbury adds: The BBSRC Council is responsible for its own decisions on the structure, development and operation of its Institutes. This responsibility flows from the Council's Royal Charter…As 1 explained when we met"— I did indeed meet the Minister— I am satisfied that, on this occasion also, any decision on restructuring must remain properly with the council. The village faces major problems as a result of that decision. Unemployment will be created and a valuable source of income to the local economy will disappear. The phased withdrawal, which the Minister suggests will take place over three years, will allow not the sudden transfer of the expertise that he claims is sought, but cherry picking of the best staff, with those who do not want to transfer from north Somerset to Hertfordshire disappearing into the private sector, as has already occurred to a large extent. The closure will also mean a diminution of the research and development base in the south-west.

In addition, the planning decision that I have already set out must make it more likely that land currently controlled by the research station will become available for house building. The university of Bristol, which owns the land, will see an increase in the value of that land, and the financial constraints under which the university labours will make its sale to developers all the more likely.

Those are bad precedents to set for the village, but there are others also. The development in Long Ashton and the potential development of the research station land—which is quite extensive—must set precedents for further building applications in that transport corridor. It must mean that villages such as Backwell, Yatton and Wrington will be vulnerable to the same sort of planning application that has been granted in Long Ashton. My constituents and I are filled with horror when we consider how much of our green land could be lost. The prospect of becoming a single urban conurbation is indeed a horror story.

I would like the Minister to address several specific questions this evening. The Secretary of State will make this decision, as the Minister stated in her letter. How is this application different from the six previous applications that were turned down by the inspector, and therefore by the Secretary of State? What measures will the Government take to protect such greenfield sites in future?

There is a fear in the countryside that we have an urban-dominated Administration who do not care for the countryside. Perhaps most importantly, can the Minister explain the calculation of the housing numbers on which such developments are based? What figures do the civil servants—who no doubt retire to their homes in the home counties and do not have to consider the impact of developments—use to arrive at the numbers? It is a great mystery how the vast numbers of houses are calculated. Why do we need so many new houses and why must they be located in the south-west?

We have made our plans clear: we believe in having a green gap in each town where building of this sort cannot take place. That approach contrasts starkly with recent ministerial and inspectors' decisions. My constituent, Mr. Barnes of Well Close in Long Ashton, put it well when he wrote: After 30 years of the villagers trying to protect OUR GREEN VALLEY I was shocked to learn"— that the Secretary of State— agreed with the decision…to recommend building on this land 100 houses. He has totally disregarded the SIX previous Inspectors' decisions. The Council, Parish Council and the people do not allow Building in this Green Valley. This will set a precedent of Building on Green Field sites in North Somerset. This also comes on the back of another Government Office Decision to Close the only major employer in Long Ashton…with the loss of 220 jobs. It is a major blow for this village. When the Minister says that the inspector will submit a report and recommendations to the Secretary of State with whom the final decision will rest, we know that accountability lies with the Minister and her superiors.

Under this Government, a prosperous village is facing rising unemployment, the destruction of its green fields, the building of houses with no infrastructure, more cars, more pollution, more congestion and problems with road safety. The matter lies in the hands of the Secretary of State. The only conclusion that we can draw is that those who make the decisions do not know the area under consideration, the local circumstances or the problems that local people face. They do not understand the problems that people in Long Ashton face, but—perhaps most importantly—we believe that they do not care.

12.4 am

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) on securing this Adjournment debate. I think it is important for hon. Members to come to the House to raise issues that concern their constituents, and I commend the hon. Gentleman for doing so.

I shall try to deal with the points that the hon. Gentleman raised, but I shall first reiterate for him the purpose of the planning system. It is fundamentally to try to reconcile and balance the interests of all those concerned with the development and use of land in an area. The system recognises that there are often strong conflicts of interest in the making of final decisions. It tries to operate openly and fairly both in controlling land use and in promoting sustainable development.

Of course, not everyone is always satisfied with the outcome of a particular decision on land use, and we have heard today, rightly, some of the hon. Gentleman's concerns about his local area. I assure him that the planning system operates to try to balance interests. It has never been the case that there is a right of veto on development in a particular area, and I am surprised by his comments about the inspectors. Their role is designed so that they are independent of all those strongly held interests precisely so that they can try to reach a balanced judgment in decisions that are often difficult. If the hon. Gentleman is querying the independence of the inspector's role, he is challenging a fundamental characteristic of the planning system.

Dr. Fox

I am not challenging the independence of inspectors per se. My specific question was why, if six earlier inquiries had come to the same conclusion that development should not go ahead, the Secretary of State agreed that house building should occur in this case? What was different about this inspector's conclusions?

Ms Hughes

I heard the hon. Gentleman's contention that there had been six previous occasions on which different conclusions were drawn. If he knows the detailed, complex history of the various decisions and appeals relating to this site, he will know that his question is not straightforward. At least one decision by an inspector was overturned because throughout the inquiry he wrongly assumed that the land was greenbelt land. His decision was subsequently quashed by a court. The decision-making in this case has a tortuous history, and I shall go over that in a moment.

First, however, in the case of the Long Ashton appeal, I cannot comment on the merit of the specific planning decision because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the Secretary of State has made his decision not to overturn the inspector's decision, and there follows a six-week period in which aggrieved parties can make application to the High Court. I cannot prejudice the position of the Secretary of State or any other party because we are still within that six-week period, which ends on 17 November.

I want to make general remarks about greenbelt policy, which was at the heart of the hon. Gentleman's criticism, because the debate is about greenbelt land at Long Ashton. It is very important first to stress that the land to which the hon. Gentleman referred does not have greenbelt status. However, before I say what status it has, which is germane to the issue, I want to restate our policy on green belts.

We remain firm in our commitment to green belts. I confirmed that in an Opposition day debate as recently as 2 November. Green belts are meant to remain open for as far ahead as we can reasonably foresee, and there should be a strong presumption against inappropriate development in them. That does not mean, however, that development cannot take place in green belts. It means that inappropriate development can take place only where very special circumstances exist, and we take that policy very seriously.

As I said, the Government remain committed to their policy on green belts, but it has always been open to local authorities, if they wish, to propose changes to greenbelt boundaries, and that has been attempted in relation to the land at Long Ashton on two occasions. However, such changes must be exceptional; they should take place only after rigorous examination of all the options. Furthermore, they should be open to full public consultation.

If it is proposed to add land to existing green belt—as has been twice attempted on the site referred to by the hon. Gentleman—it must form part of the development plan process. The onus is on the local authority to show that one of the five purposes of including land in green belts has been met. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, those purposes are to stop urban sprawl, to prevent neighbouring towns from merging, to help safeguard the countryside from encroachment, to preserve the setting and character of historic towns and to encourage the recycling of urban land.

There has been no change in that policy; it remains the same as that of the previous Administration in PPG2, published in 1995. However, not only is the piece of land that we are discussing not greenbelt land, it has yet another status. In the plan, it is earmarked as safeguarded or white land. White land is not covered by greenbelt status; it is land between the urban area and the green belt that may be required to meet longer-term development needs. The purpose of white land is to help safeguard the green belt—that is most important—by providing a reserve of land that could be built on in future, thus avoiding taking land out of the green belt. Safeguarded land does not mean that land so designated is being safeguarded for future addition to the green belt. Quite the contrary—safeguarded land can be built on in future so as to preserve adjacent greenbelt land. That is the status of that piece of land in the plan.

The Long Ashton site is not in the green belt; it was excluded in 1966. Although there have been two attempts since then to include the site in the green belt, both were quashed by the courts. When the hon. Gentleman says that decisions have been taken time after time to include the land in the green belt, that is not true.

The Woodspring local plan was put on deposit in 1995. That was the first attempt to include the land in the green belt. On behalf of the Secretary of State, the Government office of the south-west objected to that proposal, because the council had not shown the exceptional circumstances required to remove the land from its white land status into the green belt. At the public inquiry held to hear objections, the council accepted that it could not justify the change. The inquiry inspector—who is independent—concluded that there was no compelling case for a departure from national policy so as to include the land in the green belt.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, North Somerset council, the successor authority to Woodspring district council, decided not to accept the inspector's recommendation. The council's proposed modifications, published in June this year, did not allocate the site for housing—as the inspector had most recently recommended—and proposed extension of the green belt around the site. In its response to the inspector's report, the council again stated that it could not identify any exceptional circumstances to justify the proposed extension to the green belt. That is why the Government office of the south-west objected to the council's decision not to accept the inspector's recommendation; the office again pointed to the council's failure to identify exceptional circumstances.

The council is still considering its response to that objection. I understand that it is likely to publish further modifications to the plan in the near future, but I cannot speculate on that matter. As I do not know what the council will propose, I cannot say what the Secretary of State's response might be.

I have spoken at length about the history of the land at Long Ashton. I apologise to the House for that, because it is a complex matter. However, we need to understand that complex history in the light of the hon. Gentleman's contentions as to what is happening at Long Ashton. That history sets the context for the Secretary of State's view on the local plan, and explains the relationship between the site and the green belt. The site remains outside the green belt because there has been no change to the boundary. It still has the status of white land—a protection for the green belt as land on which development is always possible.

The Government are committed to protecting the green belt. We are committed to taking into account all the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises on housing, housing need, transport and infrastructure in considering development. That is firmly our policy.

As the hon. Gentleman said, he has written very recently to the Secretary of State, raising concerns about the draft planning guidance for the south-west. He raised points about the housing numbers that might be included in that.

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman says that civil servants produce the figures to which he is objecting. The conference of planning authorities produced the original figures that will be considered by an independent panel in March. The Secretary of State will ultimately make a decision on those figures when he approves regional planning guidance. At the moment, the figures that he sees have nothing to do with civil servants. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not know more about the process. Draft regional planning guidance will be considered at a public examination in the spring, so 1 cannot comment further on it now.

The Government remain committed to the green belt as a means of protecting our countryside. We share the hon. Gentleman's concern about all the factors that need to be taken into account in considering development. Protection of the green belt remains as strong as ever. As I said last week, our record on that in the past two years has been much better than that of his Government over the previous 10 years, during which green belt was lost every year.

Although some commentators choose to emphasise development proposals that might threaten the green belt, as the hon. Gentleman has, the truth is that it is beginning to expand under this Government. Adopted green belts now cover 12 per cent. of England, which is more than double the figure some 20 years ago.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises the importance that we place on achieving sustainable development and making sensible decisions about housing development. Within that, we shall protect the green belt as far as we possibly can, consistent with the objectives of sustainable development and of meeting the wide variety of needs of people living and working in an area.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Twelve midnight.