HL Deb 05 December 1994 vol 559 cc793-6

2.57 p.m.

Lord Stallard asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the forthcoming revision of Planning Policy Guidance Note 2 (Green Belts), they propose to maintain the special provision for development accorded to religious institutions and foundations.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, there is no special provision for development by religious groups in the existing Planning Policy Guidance Note 2.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that fairly disappointing reply. In the existing PPG2 there is provision which has existed for 40 years or more for religious organisations or places of worship under the category of institutions in extensive grounds. That has existed so that custom, practice and precedent have been well established over a long period. I accept that the definition is perhaps imprecise and not perfect: that is what has caused so much trouble. Nevertheless, successful applications which have gone through have welded and moulded the existing PPG into practice. Does the noble Earl accept that successful applications have resulted in improving many derelict sites in the green belt, much to the enthusiasm and acceptance of the local authorities and the neighbourhoods, as well as providing much needed places of religious worship and teaching for the present and future moral welfare of the nation?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right that the existing PPG2 states that development for institutions standing in extensive grounds is not subject to the general green belt presumption against development. However, research on the effectiveness of green belts published by the Government last year recommended that this special treatment should end because it conflicted with the fundamental green belt aim of keeping land permanently open. It had also, as the noble Lord himself indicated, proved unclear in operation and had provoked extensive litigation. Those are the reasons why, in the consultation document that was issued by the Government earlier this year, a reference to institutions standing in extensive grounds was deleted.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, will the noble Earl accept that, if the provision under the old PPG2 was unclear, the Government should clear up the matter; that it should not be left in abeyance and it should certainly not be simply eliminated from the new draft just because the Government cannot be bothered to deal with it?

Is it not also the case that, in the new draft guidance, if no land is available elsewhere, green belt can be used for park-and-ride facilities? In what sense are park-and-ride facilities better than religious institutions in green belts?

Earl Howe

My Lords, first, the Department of the Environment has already clarified what it means by the phrase "extensive grounds", which is the phrase that has caused most difficulty. I am afraid, however, that that has not prevented the arguments from continuing. As has already been said, those arguments have caused a considerable delay for the applicant; they have been expensive both for him and for the taxpayer.

With regard to the noble Lord's second point, the Government propose that institutional development in green belts should require very special circumstances if it is to proceed. We have considered all the responses to the consultation document and we expect to publish the revised PPG2 shortly.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that in a number of cases the place of worship has been built on derelict land which has been subsequently landscaped by the congregation?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am aware of a number of such instances, and I am sure that noble Lords will be aware of several others. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the worth or otherwise of particular developments. What I can say is that we come back to the difficulty that I mentioned earlier of defining what we mean by "extensive grounds". For those reasons, the consultation document proposed that development which is otherwise considered inappropriate for the green belt could nevertheless take place in very special circumstances. Of course, the nature of those circumstances would fall to be decided by the local authority.

Lord Elton

My Lords, as my noble friend referred to both the consultation and the publication of the revised document, can he kindly tell us, first, whether in the consultation the question was ever addressed as to whether or not to change or preserve the fifth stated aim of green belt policy —namely, to assist in urban regeneration? Secondly, can he tell us when "shortly" will become "now"?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I would like to be as helpful as possible to my noble friend. As I said earlier, the intention is to publish the revised PPG2 shortly. I am afraid that I cannot give him a precise date. We are in the process of dotting one or two "i"s before publication is possible. With regard to my noble friend's other question, I hope that he will allow me to write to him.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl. However, does he agree that institutions which have been in PPG2 since 1955 as being proper occupiers of green belt land subject to all the appropriate restrictions, are now to be ruled out? The categories of institution include places of religious worship. Would it not be sensible for the Government to divide institutions between those which have virtue—such as places of religious worship—and those which do not, both in the new consultation and in the new draft PPG2?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the institutional category started off as a recognition of the fact that institutions such as Victorian mental hospitals were located in areas which subsequently became green belt. However, as time has gone on, it has been increasingly used to justify new institutional development. I have to say that it is difficult to reconcile that with maintaining the openness of the green belt, which is of course the central theme running through all green belt policy.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, will the noble Earl concede that there have been many successful applications under the existing PPG2? Surely that creates a precedent. Does he agree that, if there have been successful applications, then somebody in the legal world accepts the interpretation that has been put forward by religious organisations and others? Does the Minister see that by deleting this from the new planning guidance he is likely to cause more problems than he solves; that difficulties will be created where they do not exist at the moment? Would it not be far better to leave it in and tidy up the wording of the PPG?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I accept that a number of applications have succeeded on appeal, as the noble Lord indicated. But that was within the terms of reference of PPG2 as it now stands. I have to say to the noble Lord that, in our consultation document, a tightening up of the definition of what new development should be allowed in the green belt was favoured by a number of respondents—in particular the Association of District Councils and individual local authorities, which felt that the provision had too often been used to legitimise what would ordinarily be seen as inappropriate development in the green belt.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans

My Lords, can the noble Earl give any hope to those large religious institutions—I think particularly of retreat houses, theological colleges and so forth—which may be left with extensive grounds for historical reasons and yet because of financial stringency are having to look again at their resources? Such institutions find themselves restricted by planning laws—understandably—and yet, because of the restrictions, may well be forced out of business.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I hope that I can be helpful to the right reverend Prelate. Planning Policy Guidance Note 12 states that development plans should provide for places of worship. The development plan process affords full opportunities for public consultation. Religious groups should therefore involve themselves in the plan preparation and, where they consider it necessary, seek provision for places of worship.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that many religious organisations, and indeed many religious buildings, add to the beauty and effectiveness of the green belt itself? Will the Government therefore reconsider their position, especially bearing in mind that it may be for the betterment of people's lives and souls if they are able to attend a religious organisation which is put in an appropriate place given the money that is available to that organisation and where it would be pastorally correct?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I would not take issue with the noble Lord about the value of religious practice. As I said earlier, the consultation document, despite the tightening to which I referred, still proposed that development which would otherwise be considered inappropriate for the green belt could nevertheless take place in very special circumstances. It is worth reminding ourselves that the green belt was put there for a purpose. The chief purpose is of course to protect the countryside, particularly for access from large conurbations and as a way of checking urban sprawl. I believe that that is something that the public values highly.