HL Deb 06 July 1998 vol 591 cc953-7

2.50 p.m.

Lord Bridges asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it is in accordance with government policy for a planning application regarding the creation of a regional airport in an area of outstanding natural beauty to be determined by a local planning authority without a public inquiry, and before the completion of that authority's own inquiry into its local plan policies.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, our plan-led system of development control requires planning applications to be determined in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise. We advise in Planning Policy Guidance Note 1 that account can be taken of policies in emerging plans which are proceeding towards adoption or approval. In preparing development plans, local planning authorities are required to take into account the Government's policies on different aspects of planning, including those relating to areas of outstanding natural beauty. Individual planning applications may be subject to a public inquiry if called in by the Secretary of State or on appeal following refusal of planning permission.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for replying in such detail to the Question, of which I sent her some particulars, though she has not answered it in quite such a positively negative manner as I would have hoped.

Does the Minister realise that in the case about which I wrote to her considerable commercial pressure is being brought to bear on the local authority by the developer to determine the case within the 16-week period laid down by the department's rules? What steps are the Government taking to inform the local authorities of their policy, to which local planning authorities do not seem to be paying much attention? Does the Minister feel that this case falls within the rules of the department set for prematurity?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I understand the anxieties of the noble Lord in relation to that application; indeed, I read the debate which took place in your Lordships' House two years ago in that regard. It contained another good example of an oxymoron, I seem to remember; that of a charm offensive.

It is a matter of concern expressed both in the context of the current planning application and the policies proposed for the site in the Suffolk coastal local plan, first alteration, about which an inquiry is due to take place in November 1998. The Government Office for the Region, which has a responsibility to monitor the progress of certain planning applications, will do so carefully in this case. If necessary, my right honourable friend can call in the application or issue a holding direction to prevent the local planning authority from issuing a decision without his authority. As the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, pointed out, in some cases it may be justifiable for a local authority to refuse planning permission on the basis of prematurity.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that this land, at the former RAF station at Bentwaters, is needed for housing in accordance with the Deputy Prime Minister's policy to make the maximum use of brown land rather than sensitive green land in meeting housing requirements in this country? Does she recognise also that in the three constituencies involved—Suffolk Coastal, Central Suffolk and South Suffolk—there is full employment under the Beveridge criteria? Does she accept that a regional airport in that area would have major infrastructure implications incurring considerable costs for the taxpayers in the building of roads and so forth which do not presently exist? Finally, does she recognise that the national implications of this case make it far too important to be left for determination by the Suffolk Coastal District Council?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, in response to the noble Lord's final point, the policy regarding call-ins is to be selective and in the main to allow local determination of these issues. However, as I said earlier, I understand the anxieties. We are dealing with an area of outstanding natural beauty and a presumption against major development that exists in all such areas. That is the reason the Government Office will be monitoring carefully the progress of the current planning application and advising the Secretary of State accordingly.

I note what the noble Lord said about the need for housing rather than employment in that area. There has been a chequered history surrounding the site and the closure of the US Air Force base took a large chunk out of the local economy. That is of concern, given that, in addition to being an area of outstanding natural beauty, it is also a rural development area.

The Earl of Cranbrook

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one point she has not mentioned is that the planning application is also outside the Suffolk county structure plan for airports, which specifically states that any airport that is to replace Ipswich airport should not be within an AONB? That departure was advertised by the district council. Does she also agree that so far the district council appears to be proceeding along the right lines? It made the right advertisements. A number of questions need to be answered in relation to the application. I hope that the Minister can assure me that she will be putting pressure on the district council to come to the right decision, which is clearly one that takes account of the extreme environmental sensitivity and the general unsuitability of a large airport on that site; and the fact that it is generally desirable that such a decision should be made locally.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it is right that any application for development within an AONB must take account of policy guidance in Planning Policy Guidance Note 7. That states that, in general, policies and development-controlled decisions affecting areas of outstanding natural beauty should favour conservation of the natural beauty of the landscape and has the presumption against major development that I noted earlier.

I recognise what the noble Lord says about the Suffolk development plan. It is in the difficult situation of various states of the planning process being at various stages of their own development. However, as I said earlier, I recognise the possibility that a local determination may be considered by the local planning authority to be premature because of the development that is taking place in terms of structure and other development plans.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that that application for an airport has large regional consequences as well as merely local ones? There may also be national implications. Does the Minister agree that the whole problem of planning, from the point of view of a local authority, is that there is no context of a national airports policy against which it can make a judgment?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I accept that, almost by definition, any application for a regional airport will have regional implications and also that the policy with regard to regional airports generally is one of national concern in the context of national aviation policy. I hope that we can set a framework in the White Paper which will be published later this month on integrated transport policy. We are also looking specifically at the issue of regional airports and the effect, for example, on the economy and the environment and doing that in the context of a study of regional airport policy in the south-west.

Lord Ironside

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that Suffolk County Council is wrestling with airfield commercialisation in another of its areas of outstanding natural beauty; namely, at Nayland? That is Constable country right in the middle of the Stour Valley. Can she therefore given an assurance to the House that that area of outstanding natural beauty will not be threatened by civil aviation developments in the same way as the Suffolk coastline is now being threatened by the proposed regional airport development at Bentwaters?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I cannot give specific assurances in regard to specific or potential applications. I have tried to make clear that the general rules regarding areas of outstanding natural beauty exist and are clear for local planning authorities to take into account. The whole issue in relation to regional airports should be considered in the context of regional and local planning. It is in those contexts that the regional office government officers will monitor individual applications. If they consider that there is a national interest issue which ought to be referred to the Secretary of State, they will advise accordingly.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, does the Minister agree that many aspects of the proposal require detailed consideration, including the extent and the kind of use which has been referred to by other noble Lords this afternoon? Is she satisfied that local planning authorities have the appropriate planning powers and the ability to impose planning conditions which are adequate to control those kinds of development; or is it a matter in which the Government need to be involved in the context of airport policy within the region and nationally?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, our plans for regional planning guidance will ensure that in future a regional transport plan is included in regional planning guidance. That would allow exactly that kind of strategic context to be set for each region.