HL Deb 20 October 2003 vol 653 cc1268-71

3.2 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

What changes there have been in their policy concerning alternative uses of prime agricultural land and whether new instructions have been given to government inspectors holding inquiries.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, in March 2001, the Government amended planning policy guidance note 7 on the countryside, making clear that it was for local planning authorities in the first instance to decide whether to utilise the best and most versatile agricultural land for development. That policy is retained in the recently issued consultation draft of the new planning policy statement 7 but is also subject to a separate review of best and most versatile agricultural land policy conducted by Defra.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I am not entirely grateful for those rather weasel words. Is the noble Lord aware that underlying the Question is the real concern and unhappiness of the inhabitants of the Somerset village of East Coker at the prospect of being devoured by Yeovil? They are also concerned at the reported inclusion of a parcel of prime agricultural land not covered by the inquiry, but included after the inquiry was complete.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, with respect, I thought that I gave a perfectly reasonable and factual Answer to what was a reasonable Question, and I do not consider them weasel words at all. There is a planning policy guidance note; we have not changed the rules; it was published in March 2001; it is currently under review and consultation until 12th December; and another government department is looking at the issue of the best and most versatile land policy. I should have thought that that was straightforward.

Further to the issue that has motivated the noble Lord, I could hide behind the weasel words of saying that I cannot comment on individual cases because an inspector has looked at the case and made a decision. Given that the case is currently with South Somerset District Council and may come to the Secretary of State at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, I cannot comment on it.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I am glad that the Minister reinforced the fact that local planning authorities should make those decisions. I am sure that he will agree that they are best placed to make the fine-balanced, difficult decisions between building on flood plains to gain houses required as a result of fortunate employment following the growth of Westland, and the issue of prime agricultural land. How much prime agricultural land has been lost to development over the past decade?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I regret that I cannot answer the last question. The local inspectors who conduct inquiries are expected to follow national guidance, so there is consistency across the country. We are looking at sustainable development. In some cases, the inspectors may allow a slightly larger development than would otherwise have been the case to make it sustainable for the future.

On land use, it is interesting to note on page 43 of the Sustainable Communities Plan, which was published in February, an interesting map showing that, in England, national parks constitute 7 per cent of the land, areas of outstanding natural beauty 16 per cent, statutory green belts 13 per cent and urban areas 10 per cent. Even if the extra 1.1 million homes planned in the South East by 2016 are built, they will increase development there by only 1.7 per cent. One can see that a huge amount of agricultural land is available in this country. It adds up to 46 per cent of the land.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, with reference to the Sustainable Communities Plan and the number of homes expected to be built, particularly in the South East, can the Minister reassure us that normal planning protocols will be followed as regards those developments? Can he further assure us that, if a local authority were not minded to accept those developments, the planning process would be subject to appeal, and, if the local planning inspector decided that they should be refused, the Deputy Prime Minister would not override the decision?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, we made it abundantly clear when we published the plan for sustainable communities, particularly the four major growth areas in the wider South East—I say the wider South East as the Milton Keynes/South Midlands growth area goes as far as Corby—that normal procedures would be followed and we would not shortcut the system. We were not saying that the developments would be built.

There is the process through the regional planning guidance and of looking at the figures accepted on a regional basis in RPG9. All cases will be subject to the normal planning process. True, some delivery vehicles will be constructed—either urban regeneration companies or urban development corporations and other matters led by English Partnerships. But we do not intend to bypass the normal planning process, in which there is full consultation, discussion and scrutiny of the plans, many of which will take place in the early part of next year.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, the noble Lord has used the phrase "sustainable communities" several times. Can he assure us that the planning surveys include water supplies, particularly considering that this year has been the driest since 1972, and that drought is likely to be a rule rather than an exception in future?

Lord Rooker

Yes, my Lords. However, I cannot understand why we have not had hosepipe bans. I keep asking why, and I am told that we have had some wet winters. The noble Countess's point is valid. But the Select Committee in the other place did not do its homework properly when it looked into the Sustainable Communities Plan—I have said that outside and I shall say it here. The water companies and the Environment Agency were involved and consulted before the Sustainable Communities Plan was even published. We know that there are problems to be overcome. They are part of the process of managed growth; otherwise, we will have unmanaged growth. The purpose of the Sustainable Communities Plan is to get a grip on managing growth.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, have the Government given any recent advice to the inspectors and planning authorities about the development of wind farms? Those awful monstrosities seem to be springing up all over the United Kingdom countryside. In the long-term consideration of the landscape of this country, we should be much more careful in what we do.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, that is an energy matter, although I accept that there is also a planning aspect to the question that would be dealt with by part of another department. Those who do not want fossil fuel generation must accept non-fossil generation which causes no pollution to the atmosphere—which could be wind farms, waves or even nuclear energy. People cannot have it both ways. When people in this country put the light switch on in 20 or so years' time, they expect the lights to go on, but they will not if we make the wrong decision now, and our generation will rightly get the blame.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in south-west Scotland, where I have an interest in the hills and uplands, when farmers have applied to put up windmills, the main objection comes from the Ministry of Defence? Many farmers cannot understand why low-flying aircraft have trouble in negotiating windmills when the aircraft are fast and manoeuvrable and the windmills are stationary.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, that is true. I could reply that I do not answer for Scotland and do not intend to, but there is a problem with radar being near wind farms on the coast. I understand that certain areas near the coast have been designated as suitable for wind farms and agreed with the MoD. That was not the case in previous years and there may be some old planning applications and planning permissions still around. The matter has been dealt with, by and large, but it is true that we cannot use all the coastline because of interference with radar.

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