HC Deb 21 June 2000 vol 352 cc105-12WH 1.30 pm
Ms Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

I am most grateful to be given the opportunity to debate the future of the last large open space in the north of my constituency. It is a green space that is important for the well-being of the residents in the area. Development proposals raise serious questions about future planning policies.

Warrington has always accepted the need for development, and the complexity of development issues is well known to us, especially that of balancing the need for housing with the need to protect the environment. Following the development of the new town, large parts of my constituency have been built on what were once green fields, so we are not nimbys. However, as time has passed, we have become increasingly conscious of the need to protect the quality of life of our residents, both old and new. We are all too well aware that building houses without the necessary infrastructure, transport links and regard for people's quality of life is not enough.

That is why there has been local outrage at proposals to build on the Peel Hall site. Indeed, we collected a petition bearing 14,500 signatures, and there was a march to present it to the then mayor. The reason for that is simple. Peel Hall is one of the last remaining areas of open grassland, trees and pond in the north of my constituency. The Warrington nature conservation audit, which was carried out in 1995, placed high value on the variety of habitats found on the site, the wide species diversity and the sheer size of the area. It is one of the few remaining uncompromised wildlife areas that we still have.

The Warrington nature conservation forum has identified at least 67 species of birds, 78 of moths and butterflies, three of amphibians, 10 of mammals and two of bats on the site. Seven of these are red-list species and seven are on the amber list. I am assured that there is the presence of the short-eared owl, which is found on only two other sites in the area. The area comprises also a large area of wet grassland where species such as the marsh orchid and the purple loosestrife are to be found. All these would be wiped out by development.

In addition, an archaeological assessment of the site has suggested that it has some of the most convincing evidence of long-term occupation in Cheshire. It is the site of a mediaeval manor house and moat. It is suggested also that there may be other archaeological remains on the site.

My hon. Friend the Minister will be well aware that as things stand it is difficult to protect local sites such as Peel Hall. Part of it has been designated as a site of importance for nature conservation. However, local councils have limited powers in relation to such sites. I know from an answer given by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment that the Government have a local sites review group that considers how sites can be protected.

It is important that we protect local sites better. It is relatively easy to protect areas of outstanding natural beauty or a site of special scientific interest. It is also relatively easy to protect well-known historical sites. However, it is equally important to protect green spaces such as the Peel Hall site, and to protect local history before it is wiped out. That is especially important in areas where there has been intensive development, and where a site may be one of the few that remain.

The need for protection was clear from the inspector's report on the Warrington local plan. The plan had to be abandoned for technical reasons, and a new one is being drawn up. However, we can learn important lessons from what the inspector said. He dismissed the possibilities of the area and talked about it being used for—I think I quote him correctly— low-level informal recreational activities. I think that he meant walking. I hope that he did. He said also that the site had no nature conservation value. Bearing in mind the evidence, that is nonsense, and the thrust of the report indicated that the inspector felt that only areas of outstanding beauty were worth preserving. I do not agree with his argument that a wildlife area can be equated to a park. It is important that we maintain proper wild areas. Not everyone wants to see nature tamed and confined. The ability to walk along footpaths in such an area, to watch birds and to enable children to play is especially important to my constituents because they have so few opportunities for these experiences.

The strength of feeling of the residents in the area has already been tested on many occasions when there have been development proposals. Originally, when the plans for the new town were being unveiled, people in what was then the small village of Orford Green were assured that the area between the M62 down into Orford would be preserved as a linear park. Eventually, the development corporation abandoned plans to build on the site generally. It considered it unsuitable because of problems associated with mining subsidence.

There have been many battles since then, which the residents thought that they had won. However, they clearly reckoned without the company called Satnam Investments, which bought the site in the mid-1980s as agricultural land. Satnam operates through a number of subsidiaries. After some local publicity, one of the subsidiaries put in six outline development applications in September 1999, which would have resulted in the building of more than 1,000 houses on the site, with presumably a substantial profit for the company. Residents were outraged and they did all that they could to oppose the applications.

A public meeting was called, at which I was present. I understand from a letter that I have seen subsequently that a representative of Satnam was at the meeting, but that was not known to the residents at the time. That would not be surprising to anyone who attended the meeting. I received a letter afterwards that said that many of the arguments advanced were misleading. I would argue that the most misleading has been done by the company. It has shown itself to be acting as a predatory developer.

From 14 August 1999, people in the area were awoken by the noise of bulldozers and a JCB moving on to the area. They saw shrubs, trees and willows being ripped up. When council officials arrived on the site, having been called by the residents, they were told that the land was being cleared on the order of the owners. The solicitor acting on behalf of the company assured local people that the site would be fenced and prepared for planting so that the owners could get some return on their investment. He suggested that a crop of potatoes might be planted. There were reports of a flying pig the same day. Not surprisingly, the potatoes never appeared. Instead, the vegetation that was ripped up was placed in huge mounds alongside the M62, and there was a report that it would be disposed of by burning.

On hearing that, I contacted both the environmental health department and the Cheshire fire brigade. I did so because of worries about the health of people in the area and the potential lethal consequences of black smoke drifting across the M62. It says much about the attitude of the company that it could even contemplate such action.

It seems to be a clear sign of an attempt to discourage people from using the site. Barbed wire has been placed alongside some of the footpaths that cross the site, and they have been blocked in some areas. I know that that has happened because I have walked them myself with someone who lives in the area.

That is a clear attempt to destroy the site's wildlife and nature conservation value and to discourage people from using it. At the moment, there are no sanctions that can be used against would-be developers who behave in such a way and try to pre-empt the planning process by destroying some of the value of a site, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will touch on that point in her reply.

This is a firm which is out to make a large profit at the expense of the health and well-being of my constituents, and that is a real issue here. The traffic in this area of Warrington is already extremely heavy, and, at times, it comes to a standstill. Recently, an air quality survey was undertaken under the Environment Act 1995. I have not yet seen all the figures from that survey, but what would usually be called a reliable source tells me that it shows that the air quality in the neighbouring Poplars ward is extremely poor. That will come as no surprise to anyone as it is bounded by the M62 and A49. It clearly cannot take the increase in traffic that such a development would generate.

People's health is a real issue because two of the wards bordering the site, Poplars and Hulme, are among the most health-deprived wards in north Cheshire. People badly need green space in which to walk and watch wildlife. I hope that they will benefit from the health improvement programmes that the Government are initiating, but such programmes are no use if, at the same time, the quality of people's environment is deteriorating. Our health and planning policies must be much more closely integrated if we are to achieve our objectives.

The development is not in accord with the Government's policy planning guidance note 3, which makes it clear that brownfield sites should be used before greenfield sites, and that local authorities should attempt to reuse existing land and buildings in a process of sustainable development. According to the agreed structure plan, Warrington has 5.7 years' supply of land, and, measured against the draft regional planning guidance rate of development, it has 7.9 years' supply of land.

Therefore, we do not want or need a development on Peel Hall. Residents, local councillors and I, who also live in the constituency, oppose it. But if we are to implement the Government's planning policy, local authorities need the powers to ensure that that planning policy becomes a reality on the ground. It is nonsense that we should still be talking about building on greenfield sites when property stands derelict in Greater Manchester and Liverpool and inner-city sites need regeneration.

We in Warrington agree with the Government's planning policy, and we support the draft regional planning guidance, which has a regeneration-led agenda. But the Government must ensure that local authorities have the power to make that a reality on the ground, that they can protect local open spaces better, that they can take into account the health of their residents, and that they have some powers to prevent developers from destroying the value of sites before planning applications are determined.

I hope fervently that when the application comes before the local planning committee, it will reject it, and I hope that if it ever reaches my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, he, too, will reject it. But, most importantly, I hope that we learn the lessons from what has gone on here for our future planning policy, so that communities are not put in such a situation again, and we ensure that we protect our local open spaces and our local wildlife for future generations as well as for ourselves.

1.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on securing the debate and raising this important issue. My hon. Friend is an assiduous user of Adjournment debates to raise important local issues, and it is right that she should do so. She is performing a proper service as a Member of Parliament for her constituents.

As my hon. Friend has explained, five planning applications have been submitted by Satnam (Millennium) Ltd. for outline planning permission for residential development, access roads and retail and community facilities at Peel Hall. Taken together, the applications relate to a site of around of 55 hectares, lying to the north of the built-up area of Warrington and to the south of the M62.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, the consideration of the planning applications is, in the first instance, a matter for Warrington borough council, as the local planning authority for the area, and at this stage, it is not clear whether the council will be minded subsequently to grant planning permission. If it decides to refuse planning permission, it will be open to the applicant to exercise his right of appeal, and the matter could, therefore, come before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for determination.

If, on the other hand, the council is minded to grant planning permission, I understand that it first intends to refer the applications to the Secretary of State because, on the face of it, the proposals do not accord with the development plan for the area and because they involve residential development on a large greenfield site, as my hon. Friend clearly explained. That would allow my right hon. Friend to decide whether to use his reserve powers to call in the applications for his own determination.

I have explained that fully so that it is clear. My hon. Friend will appreciate that I am unable to comment on the merits of the proposals because my right hon. Friend may well have to use his call-in power and I cannot fetter his decision in any way. However, there are some comments that I can make which I hope will be helpful.

The Secretary of State's general approach is not to interfere with the jurisdiction of local planning authorities unless it is necessary to do so. Many hon. Members argue for that principle of local determination. Parliament has entrusted local authorities with responsibility for day-to-day planning control in their areas, so it is right, in general, that they should be able to carry out their duties responsibly, with the minimum of interference.

The Secretary of State's policy is to be selective about calling in planning applications. He will do that only if a case conflicts with national policy on important matters, such as transport, sustainability or regional or greenfield issues; could have significant effects on the locality; give rise to substantial regional or national controversy; raise significant urban design issues; or involve issues of national security or foreign government. Each case will be considered on it merits, so I can assure my hon. Friend that, if the applications are referred to my right hon. Friend, in either of the two ways that I have identified, he will give the most careful consideration to all the issues raised before deciding to exercise his call-in power.

My hon. Friend painted a clear picture of the site and its value to local people in terms of its wildlife, open space and plantlife. She will know that the original applications were submitted last September, but, as they proposed the development of a large greenfield site, the council formally requested the applicant to submit an environmental statement under the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) (England and Wales) Regulations 1999.

The main aim of that procedure is to ensure that the authority that gives primary consent for a project makes its decision in the full knowledge of any likely significant effects on the environment. That helps to ensure that the public and the local planning authority understand the importance of those effects and the scope for reducing them.

In the case we are considering, I understand that the council has received the completed environmental statement very recently and has undertaken to give it wide publicity. It will therefore be in the public domain. That will give the public an opportunity to present their views about the project and the detailed contents of the statement. The council is required to take account of the statement and the comments and representations on it when deciding whether it would be appropriate to grant planning permission for the development. Doubtless the information will be copied to us in due course; it must be if the council decides to grant permission.

The procedure that I have outlined is one means of considering all the environmental issues, including those that my hon. Friend raised, that pertain to the characteristics of the site and its value to the local community.

My hon. Friend said that the developer had felled several trees and removed some of the hedgerows on the site, and that questions have been asked about the current route of the public right of way. I understand my hon. Friend's anxiety and that of her constituents about what they perceive as the cavalier actions of the developer towards the wildlife and plant life on the site. At this stage, those are matters for Warrington borough council as the local planning authority. However, I asked my officials to make inquiries on my behalf, and I understand that the council has investigated the matter.

The council's current view on the hedgerows is that no consent was required for their removal and that, after discussions with the developer and the council, the correct route of the public right of way has been reinstated. I take account of my hon. Friend's comments about the need to ensure that councils have the wherewithal to protect sites from such action.

Relevant Government policy is mainly PPG3, which my hon. Friend mentioned, but also policies on development plans. PPG3 is the guidance note that relates to housing. When considering planning applications, the council is required to have regard to national planning policy guidance as stated in PPG3. It sets out the key elements of Government policy, which encourages greater choice for different sizes of household, greater affordability and more mixed development. It specifically encourages less profligate use of land—there has been profligate use of land in some very modern housing developments—and, of course, the use of brownfield sites before greenfield sites.

The national target for the use of brownfield sites is 60 per cent., with some local and regional variations. That is a demanding target because, in previous decades, a rate of between 40 and 50 per cent. has been achieved. The policy also demands the adoption of a sequential approach to identifying suitable sites for applications. Brownfield sites must be identified in preference to greenfield sites.

Local authorities should try to exploit opportunities to locate larger housing developments around major nodes along good quality transport corridors, and to ensure that all housing developments are accessible by a range of transport other than the private car. Public transport should be used positively to shape the pattern of development. New housing development should be used to make public transport services more viable.

We also firmly believe that new housing development, whatever its scale, should not be viewed in isolation. My hon. Friend stressed that point. Design and layout must be informed by the wider context, having regard not only to immediate neighbourhood buildings but to the townscape and the landscape of the wider locality. PPG3 is therefore of great relevance to the application to which my hon. Friend refers. I am sure that the council wants to apply that policy assiduously.

Policy on development plans is also relevant. As my hon. Friend said, Warrington borough council had been in the process of preparing a local plan when it became a unitary authority on 1 April 1998. As a result of its change of status, the council decided in June 1999, after discussion with its lawyers, to discontinue further procedures on the local plan—it had by then been subject to inquiry, on which the council had received the inspector's report—and move immediately towards the preparation of a unitary development plan. As a new unitary authority, Warrington is charged with the preparation of a UDP, which includes policies on strategic matters as well as local plan and site-specific matters.

Warrington council is currently consulting widely on the UDP strategic issues and strategy options document, as the first stage in the process of moving towards a UDP. It is unlikely that the UDP will be adopted before 2004. As the UDP moves towards adoption, decision makers will be entitled to attach increasing weight to its content.

Officials tell me that the position in Warrington is unique because there is currently no strategic framework for site-specific preferences for development. That means that there is nothing in council strategic policy to identify suitable or preferred uses for the sites that we are considering. There is therefore no local policy framework to inform decision making on the site. Although the framework does not exist, there are two process whereby my hon. Friend and local residents can make their views known about the applications in particular and the future of the site in general.

First, there is a process of development control whereby the council considers the applications. It will apply PPG3 and other relevant national policies to its decision making. Clearly, local residents can make their views known through that process. Secondly, there is the development of the UDP. In that process, the council will have to consider the future use of the site and identify its preferences. Through that process, my hon. Friend and her constituents can express their views strongly.

I apologise for not being able to comment on my hon. Friend's remarks about the merits of the application—I know that she understands the reasons for that. I hope that I have given her some assurances about the policies that we want to be applied in the decision making. I also want to assure her that if the applications are considered by the Secretary of State, we will ensure that the policies that we are robustly pursuing on housing development and greenfield sites are applied, and that the best judgments are made.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Two o'clock.