HL Deb 22 January 1998 vol 584 cc1610-2

3.24 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether in view of the need for more housing, the shortage of available building land and the Government's present review of land use, they will endeavour to release smaller parcels of green belt land between existing buildings rather than untouched greenfield sites.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, Planning Police Guidance Note 2—Green Belts already provides for circumstances where infilling in existing settlements and major developed sites within the green belt may be appropriate.

Changes to green belt boundaries and allocation of building land is a matter for local planning authorities when reviewing their development plans. Any such proposals would need to be subject to full public consultation and, if opposed, would be considered at a plan inquiry. In addition, my department would need to be satisfied that all opportunities for development within the urban areas contained by or beyond the green belt had been fully considered.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. I have studied carefully Planning Policy Guidance Note 2, but it is not clear on infill sites. It seems to refer only to infill sites in villages. The noble Baroness referred to infill sites in settlements. That is the grey area. I ask the Government at least to reconsider the matter and to clarify it. Does the Minister agree that it is preferable for new homes to be built within areas where infrastructure—drains, roads, transport, schools, and social services—are already available in the community, and that people moving into such homes find it easier to be assimilated and to integrate into an existing community?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I endorse the latter part of what the noble Baroness says. Sustainability of development, which brings in all those issues about connections with existing infrastructure such as transport, is important. PPG2 states that infilling is acceptable if not inappropriate. That means limited infilling in existing villages within the green belt provided that the village is listed in the local development plan; and infilling at major developed sites within the green belt may be permitted where the site is indicated in development plans. If the noble Baroness feels that there is still a lack of clarity. I shall look at the matter again and write to her.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is it correct that the Government are reviewing availability of land as regards use and need for a highly improved housebuilding programme for houses to rent? I understand that there will shortly be a White Paper on the subject. Would it not be better for us to wait for the White Paper? If it presents us with options, we can debate them at length and make the right decision at the right time.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, how we tackle the challenge of providing new homes that will be needed in the future is an issue for all of us, not just for central government. Regional solutions will need to be integrated with other plans.

The previous government issued their Green Paper on household growth. We are currently considering the responses to that Green Paper and hope to make a Statement in the not too distant future.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the article by Simon Jenkins in The Times yesterday which argued passionately against the further encroachment on green belt land? Perhaps I may draw to the noble Baroness's attention figures from her own department published last year indicating that in England alone there are currently 800,000 empty houses in the private and public sector. Would it not be better and more imaginative to put those empty properties back into housing use rather than destroying more of our countryside?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I think the whole House would agree that it is important that we make the maximum use of already developed land—that has been clearly stated as this Government's policy—and the bringing of empty buildings back into habitation.

I saw the article to which the noble Lord referred. I believe that one can overstate the extent of the problem. Since 1979 the amount of designated green belt in this country has effectively doubled to over 1.5 million hectares. Some 12 per cent. of England is covered by green belt designation; less than 11 per cent. is urban. Despite all the recent publicity, all the proposed changes in the pipeline would add up to a loss of less than 0.12 per cent. of the green belt.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, as new settlements may have to be created to deal with the housing shortfall, does the Minister agree that it is crucial that regard is given to the transport infrastructure in order not to create a double whammy for the countryside? If the noble Baroness agrees, is it a matter which will be addressed in the Government's forthcoming White Paper on transport?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, in terms of the integration referred to in the forthcoming White Paper on transport, there is a recognition that we are talking not only of integration between different modes of transport, but with other policies, other government departments, and particularly with land use planning. I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness's point; we have to make sure that we do not cause two sets of demands on land use with inappropriate new housing developments.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, the Minister will recall that prior to the Christmas Recess she told me that the Government were still using targets set by the previous Administration for building on green belt and greenfield sites. Will she agree that her right honourable friend the Secretary of State, by a number of decisions, notably in the West Midlands, Hertfordshire and now Newcastle upon Tyne, is allowing development on green belt and greenfield sites and has already changed the policy? When will there be a Statement about the new policy that is being followed towards green belt and greenfield sites?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, there is no new policy being followed towards the green belt. The Government remain committed to its protection. As I said earlier, we shall be making a Statement in response to the household growth figures and how we meet them. It is important not to use "green belt" and "greenfield" as interchangeable terms. It is also important to examine some of the examples given by the noble Lord, particularly in Hertfordshire and Newcastle. It should be recognised that, while some green belt land was being taken away, more green belt land was being designated in both those areas. In Hertfordshire, given comments about the need to locate new settlements near to existing transport infrastructure, that was exactly the basis of the decision.