HL Deb 10 October 1986 vol 480 cc471-3

11.10 a.m.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what change there has been in the area of the confirmed green belt since 1979.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Skelmersdale)

My Lords, in 1979 some 2 million acres were approved as green belts in Great Britain. Since then the area has more than doubled to 4½ million acres.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very encouraging reply. Can he tell me what Her Majesty's Government are doing to ensure that inner-city vacant and derelict land is being brought back into use, thus relieving some pressure from development on green belt land?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the Government's commitment to the green belt policy is in itself a pressure to secure the use of these sites. Our urban programme of derelict land expenditure and the land register system are both designed to encourage the use of vacant land in city areas and of the under-used land owned by public bodies. Since mid-1981 the total area of land removed from the register of unused or under-used publicly-owned land is 42,000 acres, of which 23,000 acres—an area larger than the city of Stoke-on-Trent—has been disposed of.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the 4½ million acres of green belt land puts the farming community within it in a difficult position in carrying out the Government's wish for us to give up buildings for small industries and so on? We are at a great disadvantage as compared with our colleagues outside the green belt.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I recognise that there have been difficulties with the farming community within the green belt area, and this is one of the many matters of which my noble friend Lord Vinson, as chairman of the Development Commission, and its agency, the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas, is taking great account.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, in view of the need for building land outside the green belt areas, which is accentuated by the increased size of those areas, can my noble friend do something to speed up local planning committees in dealing with applications?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, in this sense the local planning committees are part of local authorities, and the Government's remit to local authorities is to leave things up to the local authorities themselves. What we are responsible for, where there are cases coming to the department, is keeping very careful watch that the results are considered and published as soon as practicable.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that Circular 14/84 is still the main guideline on green belts? Does he recall that in paragraph 3 of that circular we were told that green belt boundaries which have been approved as part of a structure plan will be changed only in exceptional circumstances? Can he define "exceptional circumstances", if that is still the guideline?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Baroness has asked that question. Circular 14/84, published on 4th July 1984, is indeed the definitive statement on green belt land. However, the policy has not changed since Circular 42/55, and I should like to quote from paragraph 5 of that circular: Inside a green belt, approval should not be given, except in very special circumstances, for the construction of new buildings or for the change of use of existing buildings for purposes other than agriculture, sport, cemeteries, institutions standing in extensive grounds or other uses appropriate to a rural area".

Lord Sandford

My Lords, while the news that my noble friend on the Front Bench has given is of interest, does he not agree that it is even more important to maintain firm policies in the green belts that we have, not least in the decisions given by his right honourable friend the Secretary of State following public local inquiries?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I absolutely agree with my noble friend that we must maintain a firm policy. The policy is that which I have just stated to the noble Baroness, and we shall maintain it.

Lord Mulley

My Lords, while I accept that the local authorities are responsible for the procedures of planning to which the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, has referred, there are two matters in which I think the Minister could help to speed planning procedures. First, I believe that structure plans and their revisions need ministerial approval, and until they are approved very often the local authority is not empowered to grant individual planning applications. Secondly, there are matters of appeal from the local authority decisions which, in my experience, tend to take rather a long time and have a rather excessively prolonged procedure.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful for the advice from the noble Lord. I do not have the figures to hand, either historic or current, on the length of time it takes for appeals made to my right honourable friend to be decided. If I may, I shall write to the noble Lord on that particular point. As I said to my noble friend, we keep a close and continuing watch on that.

The structure plan is a broad-based plan for the whole county, whereas the actual plan that is needed for a local planning committee to decide on particular applications for development is the local plan. However, I confirm that the structure plan needs ministerial approval.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, may I ask the Minister two questions? I should first like to ask him how many planning permissions in the green belt that have been refused by local authorities and have gone to appeal have later been granted by the Secretary of State. I should also like to ask a question concerning the agricultural problem. I was happy to read in Hansard that there has been some relaxation in the development of surplus farm buildings within green belt areas. But I should like to ask the Minister what safeguards are built into such a planning permission to prevent, for instance, a workshop area from growing and spreading because of the success of the firms involved. To what extent is there a safeguard built in which prevents the farmer, having decided that his buildings are surplus, from rebuilding his farm buildings on another part of his farm?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, planning permission is given for specific projects, and if there were a question of extension a new planning permission would have to be applied for. Ultimately that permission would have to be either agreed or rejected, so this is not a problem in the way that the noble Baroness suggests. As regards the percentage of cases going to appeal which have subsequently been granted, I am afraid I do not have the figures and I shall have to write to the noble Baroness.