HC Deb 26 March 2003 vol 402 cc423-30

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

8.16 pm
Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford)

Thankfully, I do not have a petition to include in the debate.

The purpose of the debate is to highlight my constituents' anxieties about the growing threats to the green belt of east Hertfordshire. I also hope that the Minister will explain the way in which the Government's newly announced policy will work in practice. East Hertfordshire, of which my constituency represents the largest part, is the only rural district left in the county.

The metropolitan green belt straddles the southern third of the district and covers more than half the land area of my constituency. It surrounds Bishop's Stortford in the north-east, runs south to High Wych and Sawbridgeworth, west past Eastwick and Gilston, and envelopes the towns of Hertford and Ware. The three villages of Bayford, Brickendon and Little Berkhamsted lie in the green belt land, which affords a buffer from the urban sprawl of London.

Indeed, given the proximity of east Hertfordshire to London, the metropolitan green belt, more than anything else, has helped keep the character of the district and the distinctive identity of the communities.

Sadly, that attractive environment faces a series of threats. First, the Government have a range of proposals, including plans for up to three new runways at nearby Stansted airport. That would lead to up to 256 million new road and rail journeys through the area. It would mean having to house up to 83,000 more workers, with the attendant industrial and commercial development. It would also mean that noise pollution would severely affect four times the number of people who are currently affected. Such pollution would cover large tracts of the district.

The Government's housing targets pose the second threat to the green belt. Despite lacking many brownfield sites, east Hertfordshire is being encouraged—some would say "bullied"—into building thousands more houses when our current infrastructure can barely cope.

The third threat stems from the proposed M11 corridor study, which envisages an additional 200,000 houses over and above the already high figure in the regional planning guidance.

The combination of threats—the airport, the housing targets and the changes that the M11 study proposes—means that the pressure on the green belt of east Hertfordshire is now greater than ever. A classic symptom is the rising number of speculative developers who are already trying to exploit the difficulties. On a variety of sites in the green belt, some near Hertford, agricultural land is being bought up and sold on in small plots to gullible people. The prices reach £60,000 per acre. The only reason this scam is working is that enough people believe that the green belt will soon be up for grabs.

That brings me to the statement made by the Deputy Prime Minister on 5 February entitled "Sustainable Communities", in which he made the following commitment on the green belt: Today, I give the House a guarantee to maintain or increase greenbelt land in every region in England."—[Official Report, 5 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 275.] That was not a guarantee to maintain existing greenbelt land. As a chartered surveyor who is reasonably familiar with planning, I thought that that was a strange choice of words. After he had completed his statement, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister whether he could confirm that it meant that the green belt in Hertfordshire was safe, and that no new houses would be built on it. He declined to say. Instead, he pointed out that the guarantee was for the regions, not for the counties.

I appreciate that the Deputy Prime Minister's words on this issue have caused problems before. Indeed, his glorious utterance that The green belt is a Labour achievement and we mean to build on it has amused many people. In east Hertfordshire, we are now wondering whether he really meant it. If the policy is indeed as he stated, it represents a radical change in Government policy that undermines the permanence of the green belt and poses a serious threat both to the environment of east Hertfordshire and to many other parts of the United Kingdom.

The reason I say that lies in the Government's own document, policy planning guidance 2—or PPG2, as it is known—which has set green belt policy year in, year out for Governments of all parties. The guidance states: The essential characteristic of Green Belts is their permanence. Their protection must be maintained as far as can be seen ahead. In other words, defending the green belt means maintaining the land currently designated as such, in terms not of total acreage but of specific sites. This is about location, not land area, yet in the statement made by the Deputy Prime Minister, the Government's policy merely guarantees acreage, which seems to open the possibility of swapping one site for another within a region. Many of my constituents fear that, by allowing land elsewhere in East Anglia—perhaps around Peterborough or Luton—to be designated as green belt, the land currently protected would be released. Equally, this is the hope on which speculative developers are relying. And, given the quasi-legal nature of our planning system, there is a real danger that once precedence has been established, the whole policy of green belt will be undermined.

Given that, I would like to ask the Minister to clear up any confusion and to answer the following questions in his reply. Are the Government still committed to a policy of permanent green belt asset out in PPG2? Does the Minister recognise that swapping land fails to uphold the permanency test? And what does the new policy mean in the east of England region—as we have been called—when the metropolitan green belt can only ever apply to southern Hertfordshire and Essex? It can never be relevant to Norfolk or Suffolk.

There are five stated purposes of green belt policy, and it is clear to me that the land currently designated in my constituency admirably fulfils them. They are: to check the unrestricted sprawl of large urban areas; to prevent neighbouring towns from merging; to preserve the character of historic towns; to safeguard the countryside from encroachment; and to help urban regeneration by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land. It is on these last two purposes—protection of the countryside from encroachment and helping urban renewal—that I would like briefly to focus.

The consistent control of the supply of land, notably through green belt policy, helps the market to reuse developed land and buildings. However, if the market perceives that Government policy means that green belt land might be de-designated and available for development, that will not only lead to unhealthy speculation, but undermine any hope of local urban renewal. That is especially relevant in the area around my constituency. If developers believe that land in east Hertfordshire that was formerly green belt may about to become available, that will undermine any hopes of redeveloping Harlow—a once-new town that is in urgent need of reinvestment. It will also remove any hope of regenerating the Lea valley, which is a key stated aim of the Government.

Put simply, why should developers go to the expense of assembling, and in some cases decontaminating, land in the Lea valley when, just a few miles north, there might be the possibility of virgin, former green belt land coming on to the market? That is the signal that Government policy is sending out.

The policy on green belts has served us well over the past 50 years, and the secret of its success is its permanence, which rules out speculation. The Government's latest policy announcement appears to undermine that permanence by implying that location is no longer material. In doing so, it sends out the worst possible signal to the market. Already, speculators are moving in and the danger is that, without clarification from the Government, not only will that activity spread across Hertfordshire into Essex and other areas, but potential investment in urban renewal will be held back.

I hope that the Minister provides a clear reply to the questions that I have posed and puts it on record that the metropolitan green belt land of east Hertfordshire is permanent and will not be swapped for land elsewhere. After all, we do not own the countryside. We are merely its stewards. If, after 50 successful years, this Government loosen the green belt, intentionally or otherwise, future generations will look back at this moment and remember who was responsible for the destruction of their environment.

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

As is customary, I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) on securing the debate—and I mean that, not least because the issue is very important for the country as well as for Hertfordshire. I am from what was called Middlesex, so I can say without being flippant that I know where Ware is.

I know much of Hertfordshire, as I was born in Harrow, and I note that the hon. Gentleman pops down to my constituency, or at least used to, via Stanmore choral society, which is a great pleasure, although I do not think that I ever received a letter from him saying that he was coming. I also note that, as he said in his maiden speech, he was a front-row rugby player, as was I. That is probably apparent from my build, too.

I shall get on to the matter under debate in a moment, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman was part of the "proper" club—a tight-head prop, which is where the real props play, rather than a loose head, which we always regarded as a rather effete position. None the less, I also congratulate him on his consistency. I note that in his maiden speech he said, among other things, that he would fight and fight again to ensure … that we defend our green belt from excessive development."—[Official Report, 9 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 597.] In the context of national policy, let me briefly go through the Government's position before coming more directly to some of the hon. Gentleman's concerns. I reassure the House that the Government do not intend to change the basis of green belt policy, as set out in PPG2. He went through the five key criteria, so I shall not repeat them. In achieving the objectives, the most important attributes of green belts are their openness and what they add to the area. In July 2002, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister reaffirmed the Government's intention to review all national planning policy guidance, including PPG2, over the next three years. The principal aim of that review is not to change the existing balance of economic, social and environmental objectives in national policy, but to ensure that we have statements of national planning policies that are clear, concise and fit for the purpose. I do not want to digress unduly, but the hon. Gentleman will know that the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill is proceeding through its stages; it will have to be taken into account when we consider subsequent changes to guidance, as well as planning policies.

We have strengthened our commitment to our aims on a variety of fronts. We have added 30,000 hectares to the green belt since 1997. In 1986, 5,000 hectares were added to the area around Bishops Stortford; of the 30,000 hectares added since 1997, north Hertfordshire—which is not in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but next door to it—has benefited from an additional 3,600 hectares, and Dacorum has been given 1,000. The hon. Gentleman probably knows—hence the importance of this debate to him and his constituents—that some 60 per cent. of Hertfordshire consists of green belt: 21,000 hectares.

Additions to the green belt since 1997 have brought benefits to parts of the country that had previously been left out. There are 14 green belts in England, covering approximately 13 per cent. of the land mass, or 1.65 million hectares. Following the Government's revision of policy planning guidance note 3, on housing, in 2000, developers must take account of the 22,000 hectares of developable brownfield land in London, the south-east and the east before touching green fields. That in turn will help to focus development in towns and cities rather than "leapfrogging" the green belt to more distant locations.

In February, for the first time ever—the hon. Gentleman mentioned this—the Government gave a guarantee to maintain or increase the amount of green belt in every region, including regions such as the east, which already have sizeable amounts of land designated as green belt. If local authorities decide to undesignate green belt, we shall expect the regional planning body to work with them to find additional green belt, to ensure that the total amount in each region is maintained or even increased.

The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), said on 11 March: The green belt itself is a difficult situation. On the whole, green belts should be preserved, although a case could be made for replenishing the green belt with other areas, and for building the green belt itself provided that areas are added in compensation. I do not want to condemn the hon. Member for Cotswold unduly by agreeing with him, but that has always underpinned PPG2. The notion of permanence has never been a key element of PPG2; indeed, east Hertfordshire district council's plan, currently on first deposit, proposes 38.4 hectares in addition to green belt extensions, and the removal of 54.71 hectares from the green belt. It is not for me to comment on the pros and cons, because the process is unfolding as we speak; but the green belt, and additions, amendments and reviews pertaining to it, have always been at the core of PPG2—which, ultimately, means the preservation of the green belt.

Mr. Prisk

If I may continue the rugby analogy. I thank the Minister for passing the ball across to me. He has referred to land area and the replacement of land elsewhere, but he has not returned to the main question: does he accept that the essential characteristic of green belt—I am thinking not of the policy, but of the land and the specific sites—is its permanence?

Mr. McNulty

I do not often pass the ball to the Opposition, although others may have different interpretations of the way in which I play the game!

In the context of PPG2, that is of course the case. There would have to be good and substantive reasons for the suggestions offered by east Hertfordshire, locally or elsewhere. Often the expanse and permanence of the green belt are what make it valuable. As a London Member, I find that that is increasingly so as one gets closer to London. If the hon. Gentleman toured Stanmore when he popped down to sing, he would know that much of the north of my constituency is green belt. It would be very difficult to unpick that in any way, given that it constitutes the start of what the metropolitan green belt was initially intended for: the barrier between the end of the metropolitan sprawl, as it were, and the start of the countryside. So permanence is important, but the notion that the Deputy Prime Minister's suggestion in the communities plan—that there can be additions to, and withdrawals from, the green belt, which is the implication of the commitment to maintaining the overall acreage on a region-by-region basis—is new and has not always formed the heart of PPG2 is inaccurate.

Mr. Prisk

I shall not continue the metaphor too much further, but I thank the Minister for again allowing the ball to pass to the other side. However, he will know from his own constituency experience—I should point out, for his benefit, that I have moved choirs and am now a member of the parliamentary choir, not of Stanmore choir—that the people of Stanmore, for example, will be deeply worried if the gap between them and Bushey, or between them and Elstree, is chipped away. The issue is not the odd small site, but the permanent presence.

The Minister said that he accepts that the character of the green belt is important, but I am arguing, and asking him to confirm, that it is essential; indeed, that is the principle that I am trying to establish. People in my constituency are worried about the fact that, slowly but surely, the character of their area is being diminished. Does he accept that that character is essential?

Mr. McNulty

I do, and so has the Deputy Prime Minister in his statement. However, the notion that the announcements in recent weeks mark a departure from what has always prevailed in terms of the core of PPG2—permanent, fixed, never-to-be-moved, immutable boundaries—is not appropriate. Even in the metropolitan green belt in my own constituency, there have been small movements in or out, and where there is justification for them, they have been allowed.

If I may, I should like to return, at least in part, to the east Herts local plan. The local plans, the entire plan-led system and their responsiveness and flexibility are crucially important in at least giving people the certainty of designation of green belt, and in avoiding the speculation about other elements which, I fully accept, is occurring in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Development plans should take a long-term view of their area and how it should develop and change, and should plan positively for that change. In east Herts, the local plan was adopted in 1999 and made provision for development only up to 2001. The local plan is currently being reviewed. In December 2000, the local authority placed on deposit a review of that local plan for public consultation. Some 26 months later, it still has not reached second deposit stage, including all the designations to and from the green belt. I understand that the local authority currently expects that it will not adopt the plan until 2007, yet the plan's life expires by 2011. That tardiness is not very useful for the hon. Gentleman's constituents in terms of responding to the boundaries and what goes into, or stays out of, the green belt; nor does it help with any other aspects of the planning framework in the east Herts area.

Mr. Prisk

I detect a cul-de-sac arriving, but it is important to put on the record one of the problems that local authorities have had. Just as they are trying to form the local plans to which the Minister has referred—I should be grateful for his response to this point—along comes the M11 corridor review and the sustainable communities plan. All such initiatives, including the regional guidance for which his Department is responsible, are actually slowing the process. So to suggest that local plans are biding their time and being very slow in the absence of other distractions is a little disingenuous, if I may say so. [Interruption.] I see the Minister nodding in agreement. I hope that he will recognise that east Hefts intends, of course, wherever possible—he will undoubtedly want to respond to this point—to bring in enough homes for young people. However, the suggestion that it is dragging its feet is perhaps wrong.

Mr. McNulty

I will meet the hon. Gentleman half way, but with the best will in the world, in terms of the areas that east Herts must respond to, a process that lasts from 1999 through to 2007 is tardy by any token, however active the Government and others are. We need to change that, but I should point cut that that is not a reflection on east Herts; in part, it is a reflection on the system that the planning legislation intends to change.

It is true that the plan-led system has to be appropriate for east Herts. It would damp down precisely the sort of speculation that the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford has referred to. I accept that that is a heated topic in connection with the London-Stansted corridor, the M11 and other developments, but the process is rather lengthy nevertheless. I recognise that other factors are in play, but that is by the way.

The local authorities, led by the regional planning body, are undertaking work to develop a planning and implementation strategy for the London-Stansted-Cambridge growth area for inclusion in RPG14, which will provide housing figures for the period up to 2021. However, that strategy must be rooted in the realities of regional problems and opportunities, and it must work on a time scale relevant to the local community.

Two further studies are under way to supplement that work—the Harlow options study and the Stansted-M11 development options study. I accept that the local plan will have to take them into account. These further studies will inform the regional planning body in preparing RPG14, which is due to be submitted to Government in February 2004. My difficulty is understanding why it will take east. Herts until 2007 to prepare matters, when all the other things that I have mentioned will come on stream before.

It will be for the regional planning body to prepare a sustainable development strategy for the growth area, and to consider whether the necessary exceptional circumstances, which have always been embodied in PPG2, exist to justify a review of the green belt. That review would then determine what extensions and releases be made.

Any proposals in RPG14 for a review of the green belt will be fully tested through a public examination, at which a full range of local people and their representatives will have their say. Should RPG14, in its final form, identify a need for green belt review, there will be a further opportunity through local development frameworks for stakeholders to have their say on the appropriate boundaries. By local development frameworks I mean the final deposited versions of local plans.

I am aware also of the cases in Hertfordshire that the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford mentioned, where land in the green belt is being fenced into individual plots and sold to gullible people—I accept the hon. Gentleman's description—apparently as an opportunity for housing. The fencing of the land does not need planning permission, as it benefits from permitted development rights. The hon. Gentleman will know that the council has asked the Secretary of State to approve two directions that would remove the permitted development rights on land that has been subdivided into individual plots.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford will know, too, that it is inappropriate for me to comment on the issue, other than to say that the Government office for the south-east will be giving full consideration to the merits of the proposed directions, and will take account of all material considerations. The matter may well land on my desk.

Mr. Prisk

I accept that the Minister cannot go into the details on the Floor of the House, but my point is that the signal being sent is the worst one—that there may be a chance that the land will be de-designated. That would undermine everything that the Minister has just set out. Does he genuinely believe that the metropolitan green belt can ever apply to any area other than those like mine, in southern Hertfordshire and Essex? How could it be transferred anywhere else and not be destroyed?

Mr. McNulty

The original conception was that the metropolitan green belt would be the lungs around London. In part, that can still be recognised readily enough, but it has expanded. I have mentioned the 30,000 hectares that have been added since 1997, and before that 5,000 hectares were added around Bishops Stortford. The growth of the green belt should benefit everyone in the country, but I accept that there are special circumstances associated with the metropolitan green belt that need to be taken into account.

I do not suggest that the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford is adopting scare tactics, but those tactics make good headlines. However, government is about delivering sustainable solutions to meet clear and pressing need for housing. To safeguard the effectiveness of the green belt, PPG2 remains in place, while PPG3 and the other studies focus development on existing land, where it rightly belongs.

This Government are committed to maintaining or enhancing the green belt, combating low density development and delivering the affordable housing that people need. I shall certainly keep the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford abreast of those studies, and of wider developments in connection with the review of PPG2. I agree with his initial proposition, and endorse what he said about the heart of PPG2, which is that the green belt is crucial for the future vitality of the urban and rural areas of our country.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the measured, temperate and mature way in which he dealt with the matter, rather than turning it into an issue of "bulldozers versus concrete" and other such nimbysms. It is a serious subject, and I have no doubt that we will be in touch about it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Nine o'clock.