HL Deb 10 February 1987 vol 484 cc527-34

3.51 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment about the planning implications of the Government's newly announced policy on the rural economy. The Statement is as follows:

"We sent to the local authority associations and other bodies yesterday a draft circular on development involving agricultural land.

"Today's agricultural surpluses make the protection of land for agricultural production less necessary. So the draft circular proposes an adjustment of planning policy.

"The draft circular underlines the continuing need for strong planning control over the countryside. It says that the agricultural implications must be considered together with the environmental and economic aspects. In deciding applications local planning authorities will still have to take account of the agricultural quality of the land and the rate at which it is taken for development. These factors would have to be considered alongside the needs of the rural economy and the need to protect green belts, national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and other areas of good countryside."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, we are grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement of his right honourable friend. We are aware that the document to which he has referred is going out for two months' consultation, but we assume that, when it was launched, there was some idea of the direction that future planning procedures might take. Arising from that, there are one or two questions that I should like to put to the noble Lord.

We welcome the continued protection for certain designated areas but we note that they are not excluded from the use of redundant buildings provision. This is something at which we might wish to look more closely as discussions go on. Eighty per cent. of the countryside is outside those areas. That 80 per cent. is to be protected from now on from discordant development only. Who will decide what is discordant? We are creating a few museums of the countryside, and that is probably all that will be left to pass on to the next generation in the form in which we know it.

Is green belt protection, which we are told will continue, to be confined to the South? I understand that serious breaches in Birmingham have been approved by the Secretary of State within the last year. I wonder whether this is likely to go on.

Will the availability of greenfield sites mean that development finance is attracted away from inner city rehabilitation? If that is not to be so, who will prevent it, and what planning procedures does the Minister propose to use to prevent that happening?

Is there to be even greater diversity between investment in the North and investment in the South? If that is so, and if it is to be prevented, by what means will it be prevented? The pressure for development up to now has been very much on the South, held back only by the policies that we are now changing.

Finally, what planning controls will remain after structure plans are scrapped? The dismantling of planning controls has been going on for some considerable time. We should like to know how far the process is to go.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Last evening the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, his colleague parried my queries concerning planning in regard to the Statement that we were discussing by saying that the environmental aspect of planning is not really affected by the Statement. I accepted those comments in good faith but, now that I have seen the Department of the Environment circular, I have considerable doubts.

Is it correct that this means the relaxation of planning controls affecting something like 80 to 85 per cent. of our farmland? We, on these Benches, approve of diversity on farms and aim towards improving the rural economy. But we are also concerned to protect the environment. How much of that farmland is likely to become available for housebuilding? We want more opportunities for people to live and work in the countryside, but not at any price. Too much expansion of housebuilding in rural areas, extra forestry and woodland planting could lead to too little countryside for the rest of us to enjoy. We are also concerned about what provisions there will be for continued access to the countryside when some of this land is sold off and used for other purposes.

The Secretary of State has been reported as saying there is absolutely no question of opening up the countryside to uncontrolled development. But we are wary of simplified planning controls. What influence will local councillors have over any such development? What opportunity will rural communities have to voice their views?

Up to now, MAFF approval has been required for over four hectares. That is increased to 20 hectares, leaving room for considerable development. We do not want to see housing estates tagged on to, and around, our existing hamlets. We do not want to see the urban sprawl spread right through the country. What will be the position of tenant farmers on medium and low quality land, and how will the viability of their holdings be protected?

The circular, in my view, fails to lay down any valid guidelines for those parts of our countryside that are open to development. The planning authorities in the past have shown restraint over development on farmland. There is a danger that the circular will offer opportunities to speculative developers. I believe that, far from simplying the planning procedures, the circular will lead to more and not fewer appeals from developers who are trying their luck under the new rules. What guidance will the department give to inspectors at such an appeal? Will they be urged to rule in favour of local councils if those councils can show that the land in question is what they believe to be good countryside? If local people object to proposed developments, their view ought to carry great weight.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, I should like to know the future for structure plans. What will replace them and how will planning authorities know which land is likely to be available for redevelopment? I must say that I find the circular unduly vague on many of these points. I fail to see how it achieves enough to be really relevant to the problems of our farmers and the problems associated with the common agricultural policy.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, it is interesting to compare the reception given by both noble Baronesses this afternoon with that accorded to the Statement of my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, repeated by my noble friend Lord Belstead, yesterday. I observe from Hansard that the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, said last night, at column 501: I also welcome the Statement from the Minister as a very progressive start to some new policies". I am bound to ask both noble Baronesses—somewhat rhetorically, I hope—what has changed overnight. The position is exactly the same as it has always been, bar one germane factor. That, of course, is that, except in cases involving grade 1 and grade 2 agricultural land, there is no statutory need to consult the Minister of Agriculture before continuing with the planning process. The important thing to realise is that the planning process will continue with the same guidance in the historical Department of Environment and Welsh Office circulars as has always been the case.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, is right that this circular for consultation gives the direction of the Government's thinking. But I think it is unfortunate, to put it no higher, to suggest that only 80 per cent. of land is to be protected from discordant use. The green belt, for example, which covers areas both in the North and the South of the country, comprises some 14 per cent. of our land area in England. The other local and national conservation land areas also comprise a great deal of land. I accept straightaway that some of this land is likely to be grade 1 and grade 2 land, but nonetheless it is not true to say that there will be vast development over a vast proportion of the country.

Both noble Baronesses asked about structure plans. As is well known, there is a proposal to replace structure plans and local plans by a single system of district development plans which is out to consultation. Any statutory changes resulting from this exercise would not alter the substance of the statement made by either of my two right honourable friends.

4 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that one of the major difficulties facing those who want to bring forward developments of one kind or another is the extraordinary slowness and dilatoriness of local authorities' planning procedures? Can he say whether the circular does anything to tell them to improve this?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, no, not this particular circular. There is great emphasis within my department to encourage local authorities to bring forward decisions on these matters at the earliest opportunity. Equally, within the appeal system my department is trying hard to achieve exactly the same objective.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I asked the Minister rather an important question about diverting funds from inner city rehabilitation, and whether there was to be some means of preventing this happening given the added attraction of greenfield sites in the South which are obviously more profitable. Has any thought been given to this?

Lord Skelmersdale

Most certainly, my Lords, but the planning system provides today, if you like, exactly the same as it provided on Friday.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, can the noble Lord answer the questions I asked about what influence people in the communities concerned are to have on proposed developments within their area? He does not seem to have dealt with any of my questions at all.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I apologise. The local planning authorities are made up of elected councillors. That is the best safeguard for the planning system as a whole. I cannot believe that if there is a large local outcry any planning authority would be ignorant of that fact and would not take it into account in its considerations, as indeed planning authorities have in the past.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that over generations in this country both farmers and landowners produced some remarkable features in the countryside, long before there were any planning controls at all? I think particularly in my own part of the world of the lovely barns which are such a feature, scattered as they are about the Dales. Is it not rather unfair that the press this morning seemed to have cottoned on to the idea that every single farmer is going to sell off all his land and that rashes of houses are going to spring up everywhere? I am sure my noble friend will agree that the farmers in this country are a sensible lot, who appreciate the beauty of the countryside as much as anybody. I also ask whether my noble friend welcomes the fact that there are to be alternative uses for redundant farm buildings. Many of the farm buildings in my part of the world are falling down because they are unsuitable for modern systems of farming. The idea of some alternative use for them is more than welcome.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for putting his finger squarely on the two points that he mentioned. The countryside in this country is principally man-made; as a result, practically all that there is therein is also man-made. If you want good conversation in this country it is certainly the farmer to whom you should principally turn. So far as the alternative use of farm buildings is concerned, my noble friend again is absolutely right. It does not do the cause of conservation any good at all to see crumbling farm buildings, wherever they are and whether listed or not. To use them is the best way to preserve them.

Lord Elton

My Lords, when my right honourable friend receives the powerful representations that he will from the conservation lobby to keep everything as it is, will he please bear in mind not only that the landscape has been changing continually since the Roman occupation as a result of its economic development but that if it is frozen at any point in its development it ceases to be an economic place for people to live? Will my noble friend look at the recent history of village and rural communities, which have become increasingly unproductive places in which to live and thereby have lost their social structure and much of what is valuable to our society? Will he make it possible for development to take place in these communities so that people can work as well as live in them and so that they stop being mere commuter dormitories? Will he allow them to develop—as he will the redundant farm buildings—in a way that is not contrary to the beauty of the countryside?

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords. I know that my noble friend takes particular interest in village shops and post offices and the maintenance of the rural economy as a whole. This slight change of policy is fully intended to maintain and increase the rural economy as a whole.

Lord Hankey

My Lords, when applying this policy will the Government consider the absolute need to remedy the terrible housing conditions, particularly in the South and the centre of this country? Will they also consider the need to remedy the terrible immobility of labour and the difficulty of tackling unemployment when it results from it being impossible for people to find houses when they want to move to new jobs?

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords, I fully accept that this is part of the problem. But the subject that we are dealing with today is confined to rural areas, where mobility of labour makes the building of houses in some instances necessary on particular sites. This has always gone on through the planning system, and it will continue to go on through the planning system. The point I tried to stress to, I think, the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, is that this change will make very little, if any difference to our policies for the inner cities and indeed the results of activities in the inner cities, which I accept are equally desirable.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, will the noble Lord clarify the effect of this new dispensation on the planning law regarding the permission for new houses in open country? As the House knows, at present there is a presumption against the granting of such permission unless the applicant is going to live in the house himself and needs it to work certain specified fields which are around or near the house. Is this system going to be weakened, and will permission be given more freely for the construction of new dwellings in open country between villages?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, not necessarily. The whole objective of this policy, and indeed the planning system generally, is to consider each case on its merits, which is the remit of the planning authority, backed up of course by the appeals system and ultimately by my right honourable friend.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the proposals he has described are probably the most momentous, not since the Roman occupation, but for several decades? Is he satisfied that the planning law as it stands is strong enough to deal with the possible consequences of these proposals if they are eventually accepted? At the present time, as he knows, it is broadly the applicant for planning consent who has the right of appeal if the application is turned down. Will there not be a case in future for the objector to have the right of appeal? We in Wales, more than anyone else, know the consequences of unsatisfactory development in the break-up of communities. Is the noble Lord aware that we shall be pressing very, hard for an amendment of the planning law if the proposals proceed as at present?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, in introducing his Written Answer last night my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture said: With the European Community now producing surpluses in many of the main agricultural commodities, a new balance of policies has to be struck, with less support for expanding production, more attention to the demands of the market, more encouragement for alternative uses of land, more response to the claims of the environment, and more diversity on farms in the rural economy".—[Official Report, Commons; 9/2/1987.] That was the basic rationale for the Statement that he made last night. This is something that noble Lords have been asking of the Government for very many years. The noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition asked me specifically whether the planning system in this country could cope with this new situation. I believe it can. If it is seen not to do so, it will have to be adapted to cope.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, my noble friend said that the countryside in this country was man-made. That is so to a certain extent, but I think he rather exaggerated when he quoted the Roman occupation. It was certainly man-made for the last 250 years. When this new legislation comes into being, how will it affect the wild areas in our countryside, which are certainly not man-made and are grade 3 and 4 land? How will it affect them? Are the present protection societies, such as the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the Nature Conservancy Council, strong enough to protect the wild areas, which amount to millions of acres, against this legislation.?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, there is no question of abandoning the protection of locally or nationally identified environmentally valuable land, which includes green belt areas, national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and other regions of good countryside. Each planning application will still be considered on its merits according to the usual planning considerations. As I have said before, such considerations are the very rationale of planning authorities.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, will the noble Lord consider one aspect of rural revival? I welcome any thing that moves towards giving back life to the rural community. The Minister mentioned post offices and the village shops, services that are essential to a rural community. Does he agree that the most central service in a rural community is the village school? Will he advise local education authorities to stop closing them?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I fully accept, with the noble Baroness, that village schools are part of the rural community. But that does not mean that village schools are part of a small community. They must have a hinterland from which to draw. I know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education considers these facts extremely carefully when he authorises the closing of local schools.

Lord Annan

My Lords, if we are in earnest about reducing unemployment (which depends to some extent on increasing the mobility of labour) and if we are in earnest about reforming the common agricultural policy (which means taking land out of agricultural use), is not this measure necessary?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. Of course it is necessary.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, while that may be so, does this not mean that there ought to be a fresh look at planning procedures? It will mean that the old restrictions will be relaxed. Is there not a case therefore for considering the planning regulations to see whether there is not now room, nevertheless, for the potential objector—who may be very adversely affected personally—to have the opportunity of a right of appeal of some kind?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I have already said in answer to the noble and learned Lord's noble friend, the Leader of the Opposition, that if it becomes apparent that planning law needs to be adjusted in this respect it will have to be adjusted. Whether that will include a right of appeal for objectors, as well as a right of appeal for those who have had their applications turned down, will need to be investigated in that light. But at the moment we do not propose to introduce a third party right of appeal.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some of the inner cities or major cities that were debated in your Lordships' House last week have, strangely enough, within their wider boundaries some of the small farms which, if these measures are carried to their ultimate conclusion, will be the type that will probably have to be phased out on economic grounds alone? Some of these farms form the very few green areas within these cities where people can look at expanses of grassland and perhaps enjoy them with the permission of the people involved. Is it not true that the proposals include a relaxation which may put such areas in peril, bearing in mind that for a long time the private sector housebuilding lobby has been casting envious eyes on them? Will the Minister take a few moments to answer the question put to him earlier by my noble friend Lady Nicol, who referred to the fact that the Secretary of State had acted rather differently in the past 12 months over some areas of Birmingham?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the noble Lord pursues a theme that he brought up in our discussion of the Trafford Park Urban Development Corporation (Area and Constitution) Order last night. I believe it was him, but it might have been another noble Lord. The point at issue is that such areas are covered by my phrase, "locally or nationally environmentally valuable land". There is no intention in the light of the Statement to change the local plans on which all planning in this country is based.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, I welcome what my noble friend said about the continuance of planning control and the conservation of the green belt around cities. Does he agree, in view of the very wide interest shown in this Statement throughout the House, that the subject would be an admirable source of interest for a major debate in your Lordships' House?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, if a debate were to be arranged through the usual channels I am quite certain that either I or one of my noble friends would be delighted to respond to it on behalf of the Government.