HC Deb 13 June 2002 vol 386 cc1111-8

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

7.16 pm
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to bring to the House this Adjournment debate about the change in the use of planning applications for brownfield sites. I am delighted to have secured it not only because of the importance that this matter holds for my constituents, but because I understand that it is the first Adjournment debate of our new Minister, the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), and his first outing as such in the Chamber. I should like to say how good I think he will be in his position and how important it is for those of us in suburban constituencies, especially in London, to have Ministers who understand the problems that exist in such areas. I am pleased that he is responding to the debate.

The reason why I asked for the debate is that my local authority, the London borough of Merton, has in its unitary development plan a policy suggesting that all employment sites should remain as such. On the face of it, that is not an unreasonable idea. Clearly, it is important in areas where land values are very high to have the opportunity for people to work locally and sustainably. That is the case on the surface, but when we go a bit deeper, we see the problems that the policy creates. I would like the Minister to address the issue of location of the sites and the competing housing needs in these areas.

I come to the debate not as a planner or as somebody who necessarily understands all planning law, but as a constituency Member of Parliament who has had to deal in the past five years with large numbers of complaints from local residents about industrial and employment sites that have been empty for more than five, six or even 12 years and which become magnets for fly tipping, abandoned cars, arson and illegal travellers' sites, generally making local residents miserable while remaining empty and unused because of the council's planning policies.

It strikes me that if a site is designated for employment use, some attention must be given to its location. We must ask whether it is of an appropriate size for work and business or in an area where they will go, about its transport links, and about how close it is to other residential development. In my sort of suburban area, housing is built up around employers and employment and in places where businesses no longer want to go.

Our employment problems are related not necessarily to the number of jobs available, but to the people who are available with the right skills to fill the vacancies that exist. While keeping employment land for this purpose is seen as a sustainable policy—so that one works near where one lives—it has an element of unsustainability. People in south-west London are moving further and further out because there is not enough housing. They push up the price, making it very difficult to pay for housing. We are making people travel further because we are keeping sites empty for the sake of some notion that, in future, they may be used for employment.

That is how I came to the issue. On looking at it further, I discovered a real housing dilemma in Merton's draft UDP. There is an idea that the land allocated for housing purposes will meet housing need. Clearly that is not the case, and it is self-evident that the housing department is not talking to the planning department. That may he replicated in boroughs right across London.

The housing department believes that it will need something between 600 and 900 affordable units per year. It is currently developing between 88 and 100, with 60 used by planning gain through the planning process. These figures have not hit the imagination of the planning department, which appears to believe that it is currently meeting all the necessary targets. I am sure that it is meeting current Serplan targets for owner-occupation, but not in terms of the need for social renting or the need for intermediate assistance for key workers. It is alarming that these sites remain empty, yet the draft UDP makes no mention of the need for key worker housing.

This is not an academic subject, and I wish to give the House some idea of sites on which I have worked that led to my alarm about the general policy. The first of these sites, 120–126 Lavender avenue—a mixed-use site of about 637 sq m in a heavily residential area involving social renting and owner-occupation—became empty in 1996. It was a small factory site. No developer or employer would want to go there because the site is long and narrow and would not meet today's IT requirements. There is not good parking, and the public transport situation makes it fairly inaccessible.

The site was allowed to rot for over seven years while people put in numerous planning applications for residential uses that were never allowed because the site was being kept for employment purposes. The vandals got in, the windows were broken and the building was continually set on fire—so much so that, in the end, the council required the developer to erect a fence along the front of the site so that no one could gain access.

Resulting from such antisocial behaviour and destruction are not only the misery of local residents but the hidden costs to the public purse: the costs to the council, the police and the fire service. Who benefits? Now—at last, I am glad to say—the council has finally given in and the Wandle housing association will he developing social housing there. The local residents could have told the planners for rather more than six years that that was the appropriate use for the site, but they would not listen.

The next site is 2–8 Miles road; it is a bigger site of about 3,400 sq m which was a paint factory until 1991, when it was broken up for small business purposes, such as car repairs and small joiners workshops. That site has been the biggest issue in my postbag for the last five years because, for example, of the abandoned and untaxed cars left in the area. As people made more money and improved their homes, they felt bogged down by the street scene, which was appalling. They felt frustrated that their council was not listening to them or meeting them halfway in trying to improve their environment.

I have had three or four site meetings there and have met representatives of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the police on one occasion when cars had to be towed away. There are hidden costs that come about as a result of the council's not being prepared to consider—for laudable reasons—changing the use of a site that is now redundant but which no longer fits in with the residential area. However, the council does not have to pick up the pieces or live with the consequences of such decisions. Again, it will be a social housing site, together with some business use. Although there will be an employment purpose, it will also be a much better site for local residents.

It is the final site that I want to mention—the UGI Smith Meters site, of which I know the Minister is aware—that prompted me to ask for this Adjournment debate. It is a six acre site on which UGI Smith Meters used to construct gas meters, until it moved production to India. Over several years, the number of employees slowly declined. The area around the factory consists of 1930s, residential, three-bedroom, family-style accommodation in which people like to live.

When the site became empty, it seemed unthinkable that it would be replaced by another factory employing the same number of people. It is inaccessible by public transport, and the nearest train station is Streatham Common, some two miles away. Such a factory simply would not fit in with the residential area that it has become. The site is long and narrow, with a very narrow frontage to the high road. Major access is via Long Thornton road, which is also a residential road.

I have no particular brief in respect of Hanson, the developers; I simply want the best use to be made of what is a very large site for the benefit of local residents. A scheme involving 60 per cent. employment and 40 per cent. residential use was developed, including provision for a nursery—child care facilities are desperately needed in the area—and a shop, which would avoid the need for local residents to travel to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, and so on. The scheme, which seemed to strike a fantastic balance, also provided for 12 B1-use units and nine live-work units.

It is clear however that local residents must have their say in the impact on their local environment. I sent out a questionnaire, to which I received 232 replies. I held a tea and coffee morning, which well in excess of 100 residents attended to ask questions. Surprisingly, the vast majority supported the application, and the residents association lobbied on its behalf. That is quite an unusual situation. We normally expect local residents to have a "not in my backyard" attitude to such matters, but they said, "No, we realise that we need some development, and we feel that this best suits what we can achieve for the local area."

In spite of public support and the provision of housing, employment, a nursery and a shop, however, the council turned down the application. Local residents found that very hard to accept, and it continues to surprise me, particularly given that there is another site less than 100 yd away—Marco's, known as 216–218 Rowan road—which comprises 0.75 hectares. That site has been empty for 12 years.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde)

My hon. Friend makes a very strong case. She will recall that the development not only had the overwhelming support of local residents, but the support of local Labour councillors—of which I was one—the local Labour party, the local residents association, the local Conservative party and local Liberal Democrats. In fact, far more people took part in my hon. Friend's survey than took part in the borough-wide survey for the unitary development plan. Does she agree that it is a sad state of affairs when the council itself entirely misrepresents the nature of the plan so as to justify its actions? Should it not have the confidence of its convictions and tell the truth about the development, instead of spreading misinformation?

Siobhain McDonagh

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. He refers to a recent news letter, published after today's Adjournment debate was announced, in which the planning application was portrayed as far less industrial and more residential.

David Cairns

Overwhelmingly residential.

Siobhain McDonagh

Indeed. However, that is not the case. A thriving residential area is being dragged down not only by the poor condition of this site, but by the existence of the Marco's site 100 yd up the road, which has been empty for 12 years. Successive planning applications have failed and it remains unused. To the elderly people who live nearby, it is a source of nightmares, with frequent arson and many abandoned cars—but nobody wants to listen.

When businesses in an area change their employment needs, how can we bring an element of realism to unitary development plans? How can we convince people that it should not be a matter of ideology? Just because a site was used for employment in the past, it does not have to remain designated for that purpose, especially if that will mean that it remains empty or an eyesore, or costs another council department a fortune; while at the same time horrendous housing needs go unmet.

I sat on the local authority for 16 years and I spent five years as the chair of housing, but the housing need that I see now bears no relationship to what I saw then. In the last year, Merton's housing department has let 48 three-bedroomed properties—less than one a week. We must do something to address housing need. I understand that we must strike a balance between housing and employment, but I am concerned that the present guidance does not force my local authority to consider where that balance should lie.

7.31 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty)

I am delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on her success in securing this crucial debate on the use of brownfield sites in London and I thank her for her characteristically generous words of welcome, for which I am enormously grateful. She spoke eloquently of the concerns and worries about the necessary balance between the need for new housing developments and the preservation of existing communities and future employment potential for local economies. She rightly highlighted the tensions that abound in an outer-London, suburban borough and the importance of a sensitive, responsive and flexible planning-led land use and development control framework.

The overall debate on housing in London perfectly illustrates the potential conflicts between assorted uses and competing demands that the planning system must seek to resolve, and my hon. Friend clearly outlined many local examples. The importance of brownfield sites in London, and the south-east in general, simply cannot be overstated. I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate all local planning authorities on their work in this regard. In 1998, the Government set a target that sought to ensure that, by 2008, 60 per cent. of additional housing should be provided on previously developed land and through conversions.

The latest general figures available show that in 2000 the actual figure achieved was 60 per cent. and that in 2001 it was 61 per cent. The target has been met and that shows that local planning authorities and developers are making an immense effort to put brownfield land development ahead of greenfield sites. If we focus on London, the story is even better. Over the last few years, an average of 90 per cent. of additional housing development in London has been on brownfield sites. London leads the country in the recycling of brownfield sites and local planning authorities and developers are to be congratulated on that. However, that success does not mean that we should no longer prioritise the use of brownfield sites in London—the challenge is to maintain the rate of brownfield development, and we also need to promote higher densities with good design to ensure more efficient use of the land.

My hon. Friend mentioned specific sites in her constituency and previous planning applications, but she will understand that I cannot refer to those specifically, given the Deputy Prime Minister's quasi-judicial role in terms of planning. However, I have listened very carefully to what she has said and it will, I hope, help if I explain the Government's position on the wider issues.

The draft UDP for the London borough of Merton went on what is known as first deposit—the issuing for consultation—in September 1999, and second deposit in October 2000. A public inquiry was held over the summer of 2001 and we are expecting the full report from the inspector later this summer or early in the autumn.

Those dates are significant in that the latest draft plan pre-dates the Government's announcement of the key worker strategy, hence there is no mention of it in the plan. The plan also pre-dates much of what we have said since about affordable housing, so the inspector may well pick up on those recent developments—I urge my hon. Friend to take a good note of the inspector's report when it comes out—and the plan may well ultimately reflect those policies.

The national policy position on brownfield development, mixed-use applications, town centres and housing in general is set out in several key policy guidance documents. Planning policy guidance notes 1, 3, 6 and 13 clearly set out that the Government want to promote more sustainable locations for key land uses, such as housing, employment, retail and transport.

Through the Government offices for the regions, we ensure that the local planning authorities produce local plans that are rooted in and reflect those policy objectives. The latest regional planning guidance for London RPG3, if we want to descend into acronyms—was published in 1996 and set out that authorities needed both to meet strategic housing needs and encourage the recycling and adaptation of existing buildings to provide more housing. That included encouraging authorities to look sympathetically towards using non-traditional sources for housing land, such as obsolete or surplus office floor space. It also encouraged the development of flats over shops, mixed uses, such as those suggested by my hon. Friend, conversion and the subdivision of existing housing stock. RPG3 also linked such opportunities to overall strategies for the regeneration of neglected parts of London.

The most recent housing policy guidance from the Government, PPG3, which was issued in 2000, took that policy context much further. Through the regional planning process, authorities are now required to undertake "urban capacity studies". Such studies help authorities to identify actual and potential brownfield land housing opportunities. They also help the regional planning body to reconcile information that it has about housing needs in a given area with the actual potential to accommodate those needs.

London has led the country in planning matters, as one would anticipate from a capital city, and it developed capacity studies long before it was required to do so by the national policy guidance. The former London planning advisory committee, of which I was a member for my sins back in the mid-1980s, undertook several comprehensive regional capacity studies in the past few decades—the most recent being published in September 2000.

To digress, my only claim to fame as a member of that committee was that I was the sole vote against the erection of the millennium wheel on the other side of the river, which has been an outstanding success. As I start my time at the Dispatch Box, I hope that my judgment has improved significantly since the mid-1980s. LPAC's work informed authorities' housing allocation in their plans and it is one of the key reasons why London has such high levels of land recycling for new development and is ahead of the curve in terms of other planning authorities.

Now, the responsibility for regional planning in London has passed to the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority. Based on reports such as the recent capacity study, the Mayor is drawing up a new regional plan for London—the spatial development strategy—and I look forward to seeing the Mayor's emerging proposals in the forthcoming draft of that document when it is published. I am sure that issues such as affordable housing, land use and the utilisation of brownfield sites on a London-wide basis will also be features of the SDS. That document and local UDPs are all about seeking to reconcile the often conflicting needs for housing, employment, commercial and other needs, as my hon. Friend said.

Planning policy guidance 3 also sought to address some of those problems. It recognised that some authorities have designations for employment uses in their plans, which cannot realistically he taken up over the life of the plan. Similarly, some of those designations were made years ago, are no longer compatible with the policy set out in the PPGs or RPGs, and should be seriously reviewed when the authority concerned critically assesses and reviews its plan, and redesignated if need be to housing or, as my hon. Friend suggested, mixed use.

I certainly endorse that approach and exhort local planning authorities to look closely at their land use and site designations through their UDP review processes and to recognise the changing needs of their boroughs, not least the transitional needs occurring in many outer-London boroughs, as my hon. Friend pointed out. The mixed-use solution is often attractive in dealing with the competing needs of employment and housing, as it can reconcile apparent opposites. Flats above shops or offices not only provide housing but can bring vibrancy, life and sustainability back to shopping centres or high streets that have been going through bad times.

For several years, PPG1 has been promoting the mixed-use route and many such schemes are being introduced throughout London. In February, the Government published a report that showed how we could get an additional 25,000 homes in London by building over commercial property such as supermarkets, car parks, shops, garages and other low-rise developments.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we must do more to exploit the potential of our high streets, be prepared to consider changes of use and seriously to reflect on using different densities in different areas. We may need to rethink previously designated light-industrial, employment or B1 uses that are close to residential areas, and to think seriously about previously unacceptable densities to assist in our quest for more housing—as long as it is done within a sensitive design context and we do not repeat the past mistakes that blight some areas. I will do all that I can, in my ministerial role, to exhort local planning authorities to be as imaginative, creative and forward-looking as possible in that regard.

The main reason that the debate is so important is the issue of affordable housing and key worker strategies—I again congratulate my hon. Friend for raising the subject. The issue is of huge significance in London, not least in my hon. Friend's constituency, and the continuing utilisation of brownfield sites will be key to any resolution of the problems faced in London's housing market and to our ability to realise and meet London's potential and needs.

The figures for housing in London speak for themselves. Need for affordable housing in London is high and will continue to be so. The Mayor's office forecasts that London needs about 20,000 units per year. Shelter suggests a figure of 26,000 per year. In 2000, 21,000 houses were built in London, of which 4,000 were in the affordable sector. Overall, the affordable housing stock is not rising with demand and the provision of affordable stock is way below what is needed.

Government policy on affordable housing is clear: it can and should be a priority, and developers and local planning authorities are aware of the need. Our recent consultation document on planning obligations has gone further, and floated the idea of requiring commercial and retail applications to contribute towards a tariff that would help resource the provision of affordable housing. The Government are adamant that that need does not go unrecognised or unresolved.

We can begin to make further progress only if the level of new development on brownfield sites for housing is either increased or, at the very least, maintained at current figures. It does not and should not follow that demand for affordable housing is met by encroaching on London's parkland, metropolitan open space or green belt.

My hon. Friend has highlighted the need to respond to the recognition of the changing nature of our communities and local economies in London; that brownfield sites are and must remain central to our ability to provide affordable housing in London; and that local planning authorities need to be forward looking and robust in their determination of the future use of each and every precious pocket of brownfield sites in our local communities—not least in the outer-London suburban context that we share. She has emphasised, too, how mixed-use developments can help that process, satisfy affordable housing needs and bring much needed economic vibrancy back to our communities. She has illustrated how the planning system is vital to so many aspects of the redevelopment and regeneration of our communities.

My hon. Friend is to be commended on raising those extremely important issues, which matter so much to her constituents and the wider community in London. The Government are fully aware of the concerns that she expresses and, as I hope to have shown, the increasing importance of brownfield sites to any solution to London's housing problem. The case for changing some aspects of the planning system, among other things, to help the process is overwhelming. We have outlined many of those plans for change in the Green Paper on planning.

The point about the overwhelming need for change is well made, and I shall ensure that the comments made by my hon. Friend and her colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns), are fed into the process as the Green Paper is, I hope, turned into law. She has certainly done an extremely important service for her constituents by raising this matter. I warmly thank her again for the welcome that she gave me at the start, and I sincerely hope that I can live up to her generous billing and expectation.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Eight o'clock.