HC Deb 04 April 2001 vol 366 cc63-83WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

9.30 am
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise a subject of great interest to my constituents, and, in particular, the Elstree and Borehamwood Green Belt Society, which I recently met at the home of its chairman, Mrs. Avril Chick. At that well-attended meeting, the members told me of their concern that the future of the green belt should be debated in Parliament. I am now honouring what I said on that occasion. It is of interest to many other of my constituents and to hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman), who is unable to attend today owing to a personal engagement. He shares similar concerns about the future of the green belt in his constituency, which adjoins the southern end of my constituency.

I hope that this will prove to be a timely debate. Last month the Government finally confirmed regional planning guidance 9—the regional planning guidance for the south-east—following consultation. That is an important document providing the regional framework for the preparation of local authority development plans up to 2016. RPG9 has many implications for the future of the green belt. In particular, it contains the Government's targets for housing developments in the south-east outside London.

In March last year, the Government gave their response to the level of house building suggested by Serplan and the Crowe report, and chose a level of 43,000 new houses a year, a figure in between the two suggested. In its final form, the regional planning guidance suggests that provision for housing in the south-east should be for 39,000 houses each year up to 2006. Several points should be made about that. First, the Government's figure is substantially higher than that suggested by Serplan—33,000 houses. Secondly, the figure is for five years only. The planning guidance says that the figure is subject to review within five years, in the light of monitoring, the findings of urban capacity studies and studies of potential growth areas. However, RPG9 gives a clear steer in favour of a higher annual total after 2006. Paragraph 8.6 of RPG9 states: A higher rate of provision than 39,000 dwellings per annum is likely to be necessary to meet the long term needs in the rest of the South East. Thirdly, the share of housing allocated to Hertfordshire, in the final version of RPG9, is almost the same as was originally envisaged: 3,280 houses each year, as opposed to 3,290 under the original plans. I am not sure what happened to the other 10 houses, but the loss of them will be no consolation to those who are concerned about the house-building target for the county. The 3,280 figure is substantially higher than the number of houses Serplan suggested for Hertfordshire each year, which was in the region of 2,500. That means almost 50,000 additional houses will be built in Hertfordshire by 2016. That assumes that the annual rate continues at 39,000 each year in the south-east, but there is a clear steer in favour of a higher figure in RPG9. There will be at least 50,000 new houses in Hertfordshire, and probably more.

To put that in context, according to the House of Commons Library 50,000 new houses in Hertfordshire is roughly equivalent to the number of dwellings that can be found in the existing borough of Dacorum. To put it another way, a settlement the size of Stevenage and Hitchin will be located within the present boundaries of Hertfordshire by 2016. Those who know Stevenage and Hitchin will also know that that will be a substantial settlement.

Where will additional housing be located in Hertfordshire? The Government tell us that they want as much housing as possible on brownfield developments, and it is fair to say that RPG9 has worthy intentions in that regard. It discusses new dwelling provision being accommodated in urban areas in ways which enhance the quality of urban living. This involves making better use of the existing housing stock, along with re-use of vacant and under-used buildings and sites. Those are undoubtedly worthy intentions, but they may be easier to implement in older urban industrial areas. How easily can they be implemented in a county such as Hertfordshire? Hertfordshire does not contain many brownfield sites associated with older industrial areas. It does contain several new towns, and much of the housing stock throughout the county is relatively new.

In its response to the Government's consultation on the proposed housing distribution, Hertfordshire county council, which should be in a position to know, states that it disagrees strongly with the Government's assertion that it will be possible to achieve the proposed overall rate of provision of 39,000 dwellings per annum probably rising to 43,000 after 2006, without using more greenfield land than would have been taken by the level of development proposed by SERPLAN". The council is especially alarmed by the damaging implications for further erosion of the green belt, and it urges the Government to reduce the annual average of additional dwelling provision to the figure put forward by Serplan. Hertfordshire county council is also sceptical whether the Government's policy will meet their target for the provision of affordable housing, although it makes it clear that it supports the aspiration of meeting local housing needs, which includes key workers. That is the response of Hertfordshire county council to the Government's housing targets.

Within Hertfordshire, individual boroughs such as Hertsmere are waiting to see how the housing target for Hertfordshire will be divided among local authorities. Given its proximity to London and Watford, Hertsmere has good reason to set particular store by the green belt, which is under constant pressure. Proposals to develop on the green belt are constantly put forward with apparently worthy justifications behind them. However, the problem is that if the planners accepted every justification for development on the green belt, there would soon be no green belt left.

One example of the pressures facing the green belt in Hertsmere involves a suggestion to develop a greenbelt site in Stephenson way in Bushey to provide a park-and- ride car park to serve Watford. Park-and-ride schemes may be a good idea, but that would mean the loss of an important area of green belt in Hertsmere. It is an important open space, which is valued by local people, and an area of green belt that planners acknowledge prevents the coalescence of Watford and north Bushey, which enables Bushey to retain its distinctive identity. Such developments cannot be justified, and are at odds with the principles behind the green belt.

The problem with the Government's housing targets in RPG9 is that they will create pressure to build on the green belt in Hertsmere in the long term. The targets will also place pressure on the infrastructure, affecting schools, roads, drainage and so forth. Many of the more obvious brownfield sites in Hertsmere have already been used, or earmarked for development. For example, a former long-stay institution in Shenley has accommodated a substantial housing development. For how much longer will brownfield sites in urban areas be available for development in boroughs such as Hertsmere?

The greater the provision that Hertsmere is expected to make, the greater will be the pressure for development affecting the character of existing urban areas and for development into the green belt. In Hertsmere, one cannot compensate for the removal of one area from the green belt by adding another area to it, because nearly all the land that is not urban is already designated as green belt.

I am sceptical about the approach that says that the removal of part of the green belt can be compensated for by designating another greenfield site as green belt. That is similar to saying, on the conservation of species, that it would not matter if we lost the rhino, because we could put the giraffe and the elephant on the endangered species list. Once green belt is gone, it is gone for good. It is no consolation to my constituents whose green belt is threatened, to say that other places, in other boroughs or counties, will be designated as green belt in compensation. That is a recipe for constantly shifting the green belt outwards and taking more and more greenfield and greenbelt areas into urban development.

Hertfordshire county council is right to warn that the RPG9 targets will have long-term consequences for the green belt. In boroughs such as Hertsmere, development on the scale envisaged seriously threatens the concept of the green belt, and is not sustainable. The development that we are setting in train will occur at the expense of the environment that we should hand on to future generations. It will be bad for their quality of life that open spaces will disappear and communities merge into one another. It will be bad for the environment that habitat, and plant and animal species, will be placed under pressure and then lost.

The Government have turned their hand to that cause in the RPG9 targets for housing development. We should continue debating the matter, and have a long hard look at the point that development has reached in the south-east. We need to re-think ploughing on with a course of action that will inevitably mean that huge swathes of the south-east disappear under concrete—including swathes of the green belt in my Hertsmere constituency.

9.43 am
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

I appreciate the initiative of the lion. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison). The green belt is obviously important in and around Hertsmere. It is also important in and around Walsall, which is part of the west midlands megalopolis, where the dividing lines between Birmingham, Sandwell, Walsall, Wolverhampton and Dudley are hard to make out. The green belt was established to stop the northern movement of Birmingham into other parts of the west midlands and the black country. It is more than an aspiration. It is something that has to be preserved. The green belt in my area is sacrosanct.

Unfortunately, not everybody holds that concept dear. Some planners—although not many—and some building companies, who are competent and reputable, want to expand the benefits of housing to areas that should not contain housing. I do not expect the Minister to comment on the general principles that I shall outline. I am fairly sure that in the next six months or so an enormous document will land on the Secretary of State's doorstep, in which an application will be "called in". Indeed, the matter can be resolved only at that level.

My great concern is that protections available to the green belt might be violated. I accept that we must be pragmatic and that the green belt has expanded, but there are people at the heels of Ministers and local authorities who are using the mass of documentation associated with regional and planning guidance to justify encroachment. I am particularly worried about the greenbelt area between Birmingham and Walsall, which is protected by the Walsall urban development plan. It is in the Beacon regional park, a grade 2 park of special historical interest. There are two sites of importance for nature conservation and three areas of ancient woodland—part of the West Mercia forest. It is also part of the Great Barr hall conservation area. One would have expected protections for Great Barr hall, which is a grade 2 listed building, and the St. Margaret's hospital site, to be more than sufficient to allow people such as me to rest assured that Bovis will be unable to plant 600 houses any where near that site. However, I am anxious that well-paid and competent lawyers and barristers will be able to manipulate complicated documentation and thereby pose a threat.

It is important to point out that the arguments for not building on the green belt are very strong. The planning process is just beginning and the Aldridge, South area planning committee is meeting in April to discuss the preliminary investigation. The process will grind on through the summer, and it would be impertinent to jump in at this stage. The local authority, the public and relevant organisations should have ample opportunity to express their views before the Secretary of State responds to any requests. We are talking about a well-protected area, and any breach of those protections would have considerable implications for other greenbelt areas. In that regard, the application has not only a local but a national connotation.

My motives have been questioned, but I should point out that my green credentials go back at least as far as 1966 and my MA dissertation, at Warwick university, on environmental pressure groups. Of course, one had to begin one's dissertation with a wonderful quotation from someone else, because rarely can one provide the kind of quotation that should precede a dissertation. In "The Costs of Economic Growth", which was published in 1965, the economist E.J. Mishan said: The desire to create the Jerusalem of economic growth in England's green and pleasant land has so far resulted in a conspicuous lack of both greenness and pleasantness. That quote is as relevant today as ever. Since the mid-1960s, there has been a greater awareness of the need to protect the environment, control urban sprawl and inject a degree of rationality into a hitherto fairly non-rational process. The green belt is pert of the process of halting this almost unstoppable juggernaut.

I am not some starry-eyed, paid up member of the environmental protest movement, eschewing all pragmatism or compromise, but I genuinely hope that the site will remain off bounds to developers such as Bovis. Half the site was bought by a Del Boy-type character a decade ago. He bought the land cheaply on borrowed money, obtained planning permission, sold it off, then hoped to retire on his ill-gotten gains. He was a pretty worthless character. I fear that other Del Boys are waiting in the wings—although not Bovis, which I should not want to castigate in that way.

Following on from what the hon. Member for Hertsmere said about regional planning guidance, the regional planning guidance for the west midlands region, RPG11, at paragraph 9.1, states: On the basis of the advice put to him and in the light of representations received, the Secretary of State proposes that the following additional dwellings, including replacements and conversions, should be constructed in each local authority area between April 1991 and March 2011. The west midlands has been presented with 335,000 dwellings, of which Walsall, the borough that I represent, has been allocated 10,100. Up until April 2000, 5,563 of those 10,100 homes had been built, including conversions. In addition, 1,275 dwellings have already been given planning permission, and Walsall is well on target to meet the requirements by 2011 by using existing sites.

We have all read documents, including the Secretary of State's White Paper "Our towns and cities: the future: delivering an urban renaissance", which tell us how important it is to reclaim land and to use brownfield sites. In a town such as mine, we have ample brownfield sites that are desperately crying out for companies such as Bovis to come and develop them. We can meet the targets without raping the green belt. I shall not bore hon. Members with the other documents from the Library that I have looked at, which include planning guidance notes and documents on the countryside, environmental quality, social development, town and country planning, residential development and greenfield land. I have read many and will read many, many more. I hope that the Government will say that greenfield sites can be developed only in exceptional circumstances. I am pretty certain that such circumstances do not exist, and that we do not need these houses.

With great respect to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), anyone who drives through north Birmingham will see that, like my constituency, it is not quite a Norwich or a Norfolk, nor is it among the most beautiful areas in the world. However, when one leaves north Birmingham one comes to a swathe of rural land, with a mediaeval-looking church with a beautiful graveyard, a golf course, a lake and a forest. It is greenbelt land of the highest order, and the thought of 600 homes being dumped there is truly appalling. No party has a monopoly of concern for the protection of the green belt: it is not a party political issue, and I would deplore any attempt to make it so. Everyone must recognise the importance of sustaining the green belt.

There are other ways of destroying the green belt apart from giving approval for building 600 houses. In my area—I suspect because of a shortage of planning staff—over the years there has been a creeping destruction of the green belt as farmers have extended buildings without seeking authorisation. I do not wish to dump further on the farming community, which has more than enough problems to be going on with, but if those people see that they can build extensions without being compelled to go through the planning process, and if no action is taken to remove the buildings that they put up, they can construct with impunity.

A further threat—again, I do not expect the Minister to comment—comes from Bass, which is a respectable brewery. It wants to develop a site with the delightful name of Fast Eddies, which has a Damon Runyon ring to it. The existing building is dreadful and whoever gave planning permission for it 30 years ago should be beaten because it was an appalling decision. Bass now wants to build seven houses. They have been tastefully designed and Bass, like Bovis, has put enormous effort into trying to meet the objections. My great concern is that to the south of the green belt is the Bovis threat, in the middle is the threat of creeping destruction of the green belt by unauthorised dwellings, and to the north is the threat of a housing development. If any or all of those are not checked by the planning process and, ultimately, the Secretary of State, I fear that whole concept of the green belt in that part of the midlands will be destroyed for ever because it could not be brought back into public use.

I appeal to hon. Members in the Chamber to proclaim their credentials in support of the green belt. We are not against housing and we all have constituents who want to move and who live in unsatisfactory housing. I do not want to stop the growth of home ownership. We all aspire to that and most of us here have met that aspiration. We should not deny that to others. However, the planning process, planning legislation and the green belt concept that was developed in the 1950s, based on ideas from the 1930s, have withstood the test of time and the predators who want to destroy it. I hope that the House will maintain a solid commitment to the green belt and that all hon. Members will continue to monitor developments and the gatekeepers of the green belt concept—the planning inspectors. The Secretary of State, his advisers and fellow Ministers must evaluate claims from pressure groups, local authorities and builders and make balanced decisions on the conflict of greenness and pleasantness against housing. Those decisions are often difficult and I hope that legislation will be strong enough and provide sufficient safeguards.

I am not arguing the details of the campaign that is unfolding in my constituency—others will do that more competently—but when the shouting has finished, the briefs have been read and the speeches have been made in this place, the final decision will rest with the Secretary of State.

9.58 am
Mr. John Horam (Orpington)

My constituency is on the edge of London, almost in Kent, and many of my constituents wish that it was in Kent. However, they live in the London borough of Bromley, which probably has more greenbelt land within its borders than any other London borough.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

It does.

Mr. Horam

I am grateful for that confirmation.

The green belt is valued greatly by residents and by others who live in inner London. I want to raise a matter that has not been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) or the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and which is a specific threat to the green belt—airport development.

Most airports were developed during the first part of the previous century and, for obvious reasons, were sited on the outskirts of large centres of population. Most, including Manchester. Birmingham and certainly London, have been surrounded by a green belt as they have developed over the years. Airports are hugely intrusive on greenbelt sites with the noise of aircraft and their associated danger, buildings, roads and infrastructure. I might mention, in the context of the current environmental debate, that aviation fuel is untaxed; international bodies and Government might pay some attention to that.

We need airports, however, and we all take flights. Some of us may be hoping to take a flight out of this country over Easter, as the Prime Minister's decision to postpone the general election enables us to do. We know that airports are bound to develop as air travel develops, which it has done rapidly over the past few years. Therefore, any Government must encounter severe problems to balance the conflicting demands for more air travel with the need to protect the green belts that often surround airports.

I shall now turn to a problem that affects my area. Biggin Hill airport, famous as the airfield associated with the battle of Britain, is used for training purposes and private planes. I do not want to awaken too many bad memories for the Government, but I should say that Mr. Bernie Ecclestone has a large place for maintenance at that airport, and his grand prix drivers fly in and out from it, as do other private planes relating to his business. The airport is also used for servicing and maintenance.

The operators on the airfield want to develop Biggin Hill airport into a much larger operation, which would involve not only scheduled but charter flights and the full panoply of services, as is provided at airports such as Luton. Those proposals have struck horror into the residents of the surrounding area, and in small villages such as Downe, which is within 100 yd of the edge of the airfield. Downe was the home of Charles Darwin; the grounds of Downe house contain his famous walk where he pondered the origin of the species. One can imagine the symbolism of that walk, where he composed "The Origin of Species" in the 19th century, being thundered over by jumbo jets in the 21st century.

The Minister has been involved in the matter because the airport's operator sought permission under permitted development rights to build a large and probably unsightly hangar in an unsuitable place. The council sought an Article Four direction from her, which she granted last December. I thank her and her Department for that decision, which indicated clearly that she gave priority to the green belt; she referred to that priority several times in her letters.

The owner is now putting forward a planning application in the normal way, so I hope that the council, whose resolve sometimes needs some stiffening on these matters, will ask for and impose an environmental impact assessment on that, as environmental considerations should certainly be taken into account in the green belt. The owner is pressing ahead with various schemes on many fronts, although I shall not detail them now.

The Government are conducting a large-scale study, the south-east and east of England regional air service study—SERAS—which will affect many Conservative Members. They have also put out for consultation a document on the future of civil aviation, on which consultation is taking place. Those studies have raised questions about what is going to happen about aviation in the south-east. Consultants are conducting a great deal of work on various possible locations. It is alarming that so many sites for both existing and new airports are being considered throughout the country.

I asked the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) to reveal more information about those matters, but, owing to the problems of blight and so on and because of traditional ministerial practice, the Department is not yet prepared to reveal any information as to which locations are being considered. I understand that the situation is partly created by the problems of blight, but the issues that hang over the heads of those in many small and larger areas in and around London must be resolved soon.

The green belt was introduced for a purpose, and it has worked well. There is widespread support for it, and it is needed more than ever in the 21st century. Therefore, I hope that the Minister and her Department will give it the high priority that it has previously enjoyed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

I want all right hon. and hon. Members to be aware of the common practice that concluding speeches by the Government and the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties start 30 minutes before the end of the debate. Therefore, the debate has only 25 minutes left to run, and I ask all contributors to bear that in mind.

10.5 am

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) for introducing this timely debate. I also appreciated the speech of the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). It is clear that he shares my party's understanding of the importance of the green belt in preventing the development of a megalopolis.

I will focus on the green belt's effect on London. My constituency, like that of my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), contains a considerable amount of green belt. The borough that covers my hon. Friend's constituency has 19,050 square acres of green belt, whereas Hillingdon, the borough that covers my constituency, has 12,925 square acres, and only two Greater London boroughs contain a larger area of green belt than that.

There are more than 4 million square acres of national green belt, of which only 1,270,850 square acres lie around and within Greater London, and 7 per cent. is concentrated in 18 London boroughs. I want the Government to recognise that the metropolitan green belt stretches across borough boundaries and lies on both sides of the Greater London boundary and the M25. I hope that a common approach to the preservation of the green belt will be adopted by county and district councils outside Greater London, and London boroughs and the Greater London Authority. I also seek the Minister's reassurance that the London Mayor's spatial development strategy will not be allowed adversely to impinge on the preservation of the green belt within Greater London.

The green belt in Greater London serves the particularly important function of ensuring that the city does not stretch, unchecked, out to he M25. There are places in outer London, such as the village of Harefield in my constituency, that are still partly rural. If more building and development were allowed within such greenbelt areas, it would have a disastrous effect on the quality of life in outer London.

Some projects are especially menacing: the right hon. Member for Walsall, South referred to one of them in the area that he represents. I wish to highlight Central railway's plan to run a freight line from Merseyside, through the midlands, around or through London, and on to the channel tunnel. In the previous Parliament, the project was defeated under the Transport and Works Act 1992 procedure. The promoters of the project have held consultations with the local authorities that are situated along the proposed route, and those discussions have made them aware of the environmental importance of the green belt, and of sites of special scientific interest and nature reserves, many of which lie within the green belt. In my own constituency, Ruislip woods is a premier nature reserve in green belt in Greaser London, and in the Colne valley there are many sites of special scientific interest that are also green belt. As I understand it, Central railway intends to run the line through the Colne valley and then either along the Chiltern line track that passes green belt between Uxbridge and Ruislip in to central London or around the M25 to Croydon and down to the channel tunnel. Either way, the railway will go through green belt and have a devastating effect on the local environment.

It has been suggested that, because the result of the consultation has been so adverse and many local authorities are rightly sensitive about the dangers of such developments in their green belt areas, the Government might be induced to promote the Bill under the hybrid procedure. It would be an abuse if the Government used that procedure to push the Central railway project through Parliament. The Transport and Works Act procedure was evolved specifically to ensure that local sensitivities, such as the preservation of green belt, were taken into account in the planning procedure. If a hybrid Bill has Government support, the Government can mobilise their majority to push a pet project through, regardless of environmental or other sensitivities. I urge the Government to come clean on the matter. There has already been blight as property values have understandably declined along the projected route of the railway line.

In conclusion, I seek clarification on a point that has been put to Her Majesty's Government on many occasions by the London Green Belt Council, of which I have the honour of being president. Many voluntary organisations within and outside London are members of the council, which has worked effectively on an entirely voluntary basis to preserve the green belt since the first plans were initiated in 1954, especially under the chairmanship of Mr. Ronald Smith, to whom I pay tribute. He recently left the post because of ill health, but he did the job admirably for more than 20 years.

The council's point is that the green belt is not a designation of countryside quality. Its importance is to prevent communities—villages and towns—becoming merged in an amorphous sprawl. It is not a question of preserving pretty countryside. If those two concepts become confused, there is a risk that the original planning purpose of green belt will be vitiated. I ask Her Majesty's Government for reassurance on that point.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere made clear, RPG9 contains projections of additional housing that will have a grave impact on open space and green belt in the south-east. It speaks much about preserving beautiful countryside and SSIs and so forth, which is all to the good, but there must be space between towns and villages, otherwise they become conurbations, especially in the south-east, which is so overcrowded and congested. I congratulate my hon. Friend, and seek reassurance from the Minister on those points.

10.14 am
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

I am glad to join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on securing this important debate, and on the highly effective way in which he represents the interests of his constituents. I am also pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), because he concluded on precisely the point at which I should like to begin.

As many hon. Members will know, the Cambridge green belt was one of the first to be established and was designed precisely for the purpose to which my hon. Friend referred—to try to maintain the setting of Cambridge. It is not a designation of the quality of land as such, but has the purpose of avoiding the urban sprawl in Cambridge that has occurred in many other settings during the past 50 years.

The Cambridge green belt is not intended to set the city in aspic, or to create a museum of the city. Cambridge's development over the past 50 years is the opposite of that. Regardless of the green belt, we are the fastest growing part of the country, with a world-class university, and we have made rapid developments in housing, technology and industry. However, will the green belt continue to be protected so that the city, with its continuing character, will still offer those who come to Cambridge to live or for business the quality environment that has previously been enjoyed? I regret that that is under threat, and that the Government have not helped.

We have heard about the issuing of regional planning guidance. RPG6, which relates to East Anglia, was finalised in November 2000. The Minister will recall from a debate in the House in June 2000—prior to the issue of that guidance—that I was critical of the Government's intention to set out a sequence of developments in the Cambridge sub-region, which is under unique pressure for additional development.

In that sequence of housing developments, the first priority is within the built-up area of Cambridge, but subsequent studies have shown that only a small proportion of additional housing could be built on sites in that area. The second priority for development is on the periphery of the built-up area of Cambridge, subject to the review of the green belt. That area, by definition, is greenbelt land. That would prioritise Cambridge greenbelt development ahead of development outside the green belt and in market towns.

The Government's guidance has opened the door to those who wish substantially to undermine the original purposes of the green belt. Since then, we have discovered that Cambridge city council, which is unfortunately led by the Liberal Democrats, is pursuing that strategy. The order of preference in the studies, which includes early greenbelt development, makes it possible that up to half of the additional sites for new housing in the Cambridge sub-region will be identified in the green belt. Therefore, some studies have identified that 11,000 of the 22,000 additional houses beyond those in the pipeline would be built on greenbelt sites.

It is obvious to my constituents, and to the House, that building a maximum of 11,000 new houses on the Cambridge green belt would undermine the green belt's purposes. Maps from the studies show that such a scale of development will substantially change southern and eastern access to Cambridge.

I do not argue that the green belt should remain the same for ever. I learned at the regional planning inquiry that, in this context, planning law says that permanent means 25 years. Nothing is permanent. Addenbrooke's hospital has proposed a small addition to its site, which would be on greenbelt land, and I do not object to that because it is a necessary step. However, to develop a large urban area in the green belt, to the extent suggested by some studies that are promoted by Cambridge city council, would undermine the green belt, and that would be a direct consequence of the regional planning guidance issued by the Government.

In relation to the decisions made on structure plans, I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will, if they can, begin to modify the consequences of the regional planning guidance, if that leads to excessive development in the green belt. I hope that, as a result of this debate, Cambridge city council, and especially the Liberal Democrats on it, will abandon its plan to build over the Cambridge green belt, which would be detrimental to those who live in Cambridge and especially my constituents.

10.20 am
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

My constituency is blighted by a plan to build 10,000 houses on prime greenbelt land between Hitchin and Stevenage. In a sense, every constituency with greenbelt land is blighted by that proposal, because it is the biggest ever proposal to build on the green belt.

As we know, planning is based on precedence, so the creation of such a precedent could threaten the integrity of green belts throughout the country. That proposal was such an important issue that it provoked a national row, which prompted the Deputy Prime Minister to come to Parliament to announce a change in his planning policies. We were told that the new policy would require counties and councils, when developing new structure plans, to establish all the brownfield sites first, before moving on to less brown or greenfield sites, and it was hoped that that would obviate the need to build on the green belt.

When the Deputy Prime Minister made that announcement, I welcomed it provisionally, but I said that the litmus test would be whether the new proposals were merely spin, or whether they would alter things on the ground—whether they would influence and impinge on the proposal to build 10,000 houses in the green belt between Hitchin and Stevenage.

Sadly, the Minister acknowledged, in subsequent correspondence, that the Government did not intend that the new planning policy guidance note 3 should apply to structure plans that were already in the pipeline. However, the consequence of the change had been seen on the ground—the Conservatives had regained control of North Hertfordshire district council and Hertfordshire county council, partly because of the reaction to the proposal among the electorate, who resented the way in which it had been rammed through by the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party on Hertfordshire county council. The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) was right to say that such matters should not be party political. Sadly, however, that was not the case in my area, where the proposal had been carried through for largely party political reasons by the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, who saw advantage for themselves in building up Stevenage.

The consequence of the change in the composition of North Hertfordshire district council was that it took legal advice from a leading Queen's counsel on whether PPG3 should apply to structure plans that were in the process of being determined. He ruled that, despite the Government's intention, and with specific reference to the Minister's letter to me, the Government were misadvised and that PPG3 does apply to such structure plans, which must fulfil the requirements. The structure plan in question had not fulfilled those requirements, so there was a duty to reject it, which has been done. That has created an extraordinary situation. It has cast in doubt the whole planning process established by the Government, as well as what will happen in North Hertfordshire district council and Hertfordshire county council.

I call on the Minister to clarify the position by revising and reconsidering her advice. Will she accept that if the Government's policy is right for the future, it must be right for plans that are currently in the process of being implemented? If the policy can be put into effect, thereby preventing the blight on the green belt—not only in my constituency but, because of its precedential effect, throughout the country—that must be in the interests of the country as well as my constituents. I call on the Minister to think again.

10.24 am
Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on the way in which he presented his case and on having the good fortune to secure this debate. However, I am rather disappointed by those Conservative Members who have spoken, including the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). Many of them must have extremely short memories. Having been a member of a local authority in Hampshire, I remember the pain and destruction inflicted by not only Tory-controlled local authorities, including the Tory-controlled Hampshire county council, but the Tory Government, in acquiescing time and again to developers' pleas for ever more housing in Hampshire. The right hon. Gentleman was a member of a Government who time and again successfully supported building on the green belt rather than stopping it, so it is therefore a bit rich for him and others—

Mr. Lilley

I speak as a local Member. For 18 years, I opposed every project to build on the green belt in my constituency, and up to now I have succeeded.

Mr. Hancock

I welcome that, as, I am sure, do the right hon. Gentleman's constituents. He is worried about his own constituency, but he did not show much anxiety for other people's constituencies during the '80s and '90s, when he was part of a Government who manifestly did not care much about the green belt and did not take much notice of local people, whether they were dealing with a Labour-controlled council or a Liberal Democrat-controlled council. They completely ignored local pleas. It is therefore a bit rich for some Members now to plead that they have suddenly found that they have to fight their own corner. Many of us lost battles in the past and paid a heavy price for doing so.

I welcome the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) that no one has a monopoly over the green belt or can claim credit for having more of a conscience now for what went on in the past. We all have a part to play, and we must all work together to ensure that we protect what we have and make better use of land that has already been developed.

Interestingly, the hon. Members who have spoken so far have offered no constructive alternatives to building on the green belt. As a nation, we still have nearly 750,000 empty properties. I accept the argument that possibly half of those are in parts of the country in which people do not want to live and which do not have the job opportunities that should be available for people, but that still leaves many hundreds of thousands of empty properties in and around our big cities and towns, which, for one reason or another, stand empty. We need constructive policies that will allow those properties to come into use.

I wonder how many Members of the House of Commons live in homes that were built on the green belt or are the result of infill or backland development. I live in a house that 40 years ago would have been considered to be on the edge of a green belt, on the outskirts of Portsmouth. However, a house was there 100 years ago. My house is in the garden of a much bigger house that is still there. It made good use of land between a road, a house and the railway that runs behind. However, that is not the only answer.

In my county, endless acres of brownfield land have been occupied for the best part of a century by the Ministry of Defence, and successive Governments of both persuasions have neglected to release that land. They have seen anchors and chains rotting away on brownfield sites, when on the other side of the road, greenfield sites have been built on, in some instances simply to store empty containers and anchors of battleships that have long been scrapped. It is a public disgrace that, in a county such as Hampshire, so much derelict land should have been owned by the nation while so much of our green space was being eaten away.

We must consider what to do to resolve the problem. The pressure will not go away. The pressure for people to have somewhere decent to live is with us all. As Members of the House, we are probably confronted daily by letters from people living in pretty horrendous living conditions. The need to generate better homes is with us constantly. Such pressure will not diminish over the next 10 years. It will be constant, as the population lives longer and more people want to live independently and move into better accommodation.

Developers eye the countryside with relish. I have been involved in local government for 30 years and have seen developers building land banks, sometimes with not an inkling of a chance of a site being developed for 10, 15 or 20 years. They knew that the demand for such sites would be constant and that, sooner or later, their dream to realise a return on their investment in buying up options and farmland would materialise.

There was not a proper process for controlling how the land was developed because developers were not under pressure to look at other sites. They were not given a great deal of assistance to bring sites into use that had been used for commercial purposes. In many instances, land was heavily contaminated and the grants were not sufficient to make some of those sites viable for development purposes. It must have been in the nation's interest—and must still be—for the Government to give sufficient assistance to develop those sites and bring them into use.

Everyone in the Chamber believes that the green belt and the countryside are worth preserving and that any development should be allowed only after the most intrusive scrutiny. We want to see the national resource of the countryside protected and finances to be released to clean up the sites. We must give incentives to developers to use the opportunities that are available in our towns and cities. If we do not do that, the argument about the green belt will be repeated again and again. Opposition and Government Members may change, but there will still be pressure for homes, pressure from developers, and the cry that we must not build on the green belt. We must find a balance.

Over the past few months, the Government have tried to bring some semblance of balance. Matters cannot be decided at a local level. The pressures are too great. The easiest way to deal with the problem is for a regional view of housing to be worked on collectively by local government. If a common approach were taken and local authorities could learn to work together more closely along with the Government, the problem might be resolved. We shall be put under constant pressure because developers know that sooner or later they will win. They will continue with the wearing-down process at local authority, ministerial and planning inspector levels. They will repeatedly take on the system.

Developers have three things on their side—time, resources and the pressure from people who want somewhere decent to live. They know that if they adopt a scattergun approach often enough, sooner or later their reward will come. I hope that the Minister will say that she is completely committed to the principle that no element of the green belt should go cheaply and, if any of it does, it should be only after the most rigorous examination. None of it should go until we determine properly our policies on inner city and brownfield development. We need to make our cities and our towns attractive again for people to want to live in them. We do not want to fall into the trap of the previous Government, who, for 18 years, ignored the pleas to protect the countryside, and allowed their developer friends to rape the green and pleasant land that we all now claim to want to protect.

10.34 am
Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on securing the debate, and I assure him that, while he spoke eloquently for his own constituents, he spoke not only for people in Hertfordshire, and his passion for defending the green belt was evident. This is an issue that has rightly been rising up the political agenda over large swathes of the country, partly because the green belt is seen to be in more crisis than ever. This is an extremely topical debate.

The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) made an interesting contribution. I suspect that we would agree with his wish that this were a consensual, non-party issue. It would be good if the green belt were not part of partisan political debate. Sadly, that is no longer the case. We all accept the realities, and we see from this morning's debate that everyone accepts that the Government of the day must make difficult individual choices about difficult individual issues. Therefore, the criterion by which to judge the attitude of the Government of the day is their general presumption—whether or not they feel that the green belt should be protected except in small-scale, exceptional circumstances. The evidence of their attitude is staring us in the face in the regional planning guidance documents that are being produced for various areas of the country, to which several hon. Members have referred.

It is especially sad for those who wish the issue were non-partisan that the regional planning documents show that the green belt is under threat in five of the nine English regions. That is not only regrettable; it is shaming that the Government have been reduced to that. Several of my hon. Friends have said that the Government who came to office promising to be the greenest Government ever have not only failed to live up to that promise, but are systematically undermining the protection provided to the green belt by previous Governments of bath parties. That is regrettable.

Most of the debate has been about housing, but other issues have been mentioned. Notably, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) spoke about the problems of airport expansion, which clearly involves important and difficult decisions for any Government. The Central railway issue was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). In parenthesis, I agree with his call on the Minister to reject the hybrid Bill route for any Central rail proposal. That would be an abuse of the system, partly because the promoters of Central rail are trying to use that procedure to avoid answering detailed questions that should be dealt with before the project goes ahead.

To return to the main issue of housing, the Minister for Housing and planning has been entirely explicit about the matter. Speaking in the House, he said: in certain cases when it is desirable in terms of urban extension and sustainability, there may be a case for reconsidering green belt boundaries"—[Official Report, 29 April 1999; Vol. 330, c. 531.] In a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), the Minister said: it is true that we are allowing some Green Belts to be reviewed. "Reviewed" is a weasel word in this context. The Government are allowing the green belt to be eroded in various areas, which has serious long-term consequences throughout the country. We have already heard how the Cambridge green belt is under threat. Indeed, on 27 Match 2000 the Minister's Department issued a press release saying that the Cambridge green belt is an essential part of the process of finding sustainable locations for development." Words can clearly mean anything under this Government, if the green belt is a sustainable location for development. The point about preserving the green belt is to preserve sustainability. We have heard about Stevenage, but there are similar examples throughout the country. Some 2,500 homes are being built on the green belt near Newcastle, although there are 4,000 empty homes in Newcastle, which the Labour party controls. The Deputy Prime Minister overturned the inspector's recommendation not to build a proposed 150-acre industrial development on the green belt near Sutton Coldfield. There is a widespread national crisis.

In the Government's defence, they are reflecting their Back Benchers' views. The rural group of Labour Members of Parliament, which consists of 168 Members, issued a rural manifesto calling for more building on the green belt and the scrapping of planning restrictions on agricultural land. The new-found neglect of the green belt's importance runs right through the parliamentary Labour party. That is regrettable.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), who is no longer in his place, said that blame for building on the green belt is a non-partisan issue, but that all the problems with the green belt in Stevenage are the previous Government's fault. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) was characteristically generous in not mentioning the full role played by Liberal Democrat councillors in Stevenage in enabling the environmental vandalism to go ahead. They changed the council's standing orders so that the decision to drive through the proposal could be taken outside full council, in case decent members of the Labour or Liberal Democrat groups might vote against it.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth South mentioned his party's history, but he could act now to persuade his colleagues on the Liberal Democrat benches of Hertfordshire county council to change their minds. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) mentioned that Cambridge city council, which the Liberal Democrats control, is driving through proposals to damage the green belt around Cambridge. The national Liberal Democrat party could take decisions now on matters for which it has such responsibility.

The right hon. Member for Walsall, South eloquently made the point that the green belt is not only a matter of concern in the south-east. He talked about its importance north of Birmingham. It is equally important south of Birmingham. I draw the Minister's attention to the problem of the proposed new service area on the M42. A concerned local resident, Mrs. Jean Hill, has written to the Deputy Prime Minister, and others, that she is "appalled" that he has given the go ahead for a Motorway Service area in the green belt. She says: The concept of the Green Belt being a protected area is a farce and is only adhered to it seems until it suits Government and vested interests. That is the key point. I hope that the Minister will take the letter to heart. The view is now widespread throughout the country that the previous protection to the countryside that the green belt afforded has been weakened.

I know that we all want to hear the Minister's comments. I am sure that, repeating what her colleagues have often said, she will say that the Government have created 30,000 new hectares of green belt, so the charges laid at their door are unfair, but all the new land that has been designated green belt was already green land, and was not threatened. Since the Government are prepared to allow development on greenbelt land, designating existing greenfield as greenbelt land is meaningless. It adds only a false protection, because other greenbelt land is disappearing.

An addiction to central housing targets is behind the Government's problem in adhering to the previous consensus on the green belt. They still want a centrally planned system that drives housing numbers down from the centre. That system entails an all-powerful and all-knowing Minister who sits in Whitehall and decides how many new homes must be built. He or she divides that figure among the regions, regardless of the desires of local people and local councils. That is a top-down centralist system, which all sensible organisations have abolished for large-scale planning. For some reason, we preserve that method in our housing system, despite the fact that it puts added pressure on the green belt.

To take up a point made by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South, with which I agreed, that system encourages development outside city centres, which hollows out our city centres, and that is a serious long-term problem. The underlying problem of a centralist system explains why we think that the planning system must be radically reformed; it should be bottom-up not top-down. Local people must decide the long-term consequences for their areas. In that regard, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman that that is best done at a regional level. To take the example of Stevenage, its environmental issues would be decided by the south-east regional assembly in Brighton, which is even further away from Stevenage than Whitehall. To move to a regional system strikes me as a bizarre.

As we all know, we are coming up to a general election and anyone who cares about the green belt has a clear choice. The Government's policy is stuck in the past, insensitive to local concerns and driven entirely by Whitehall. Our alternative policy protects both our countryside and our inner cities. It would preserve and enhance the green belt and it would save our precious countryside for future generations. Our approach is not only popular, but the right thing to do for the future of our green belt and our countryside.

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

I begin as usual by congratulating the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on securing this debate on the future of the green belt, which is an important subject. The Opposition have frequently tried to suggest that the Government's commitment to the green belt is open to question. However, every time they have made that suggestion we have rebutted it by demonstrating our record, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me another opportunity to do that.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and the hon. Members for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), for Orpington (Mr. Horam) and for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) mentioned specific cases. They will understand that I cannot comment today on those proposals or potential proposals, which, in one way or another, were all concerned with the green belt. However, I can assure hon. Members of the Government's absolute commitment to the green belt as a method of restricting urban sprawl.

I am grateful to the hon. Members for Ruislip-Northwood and for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) for reminding their hon. Friends, who seemed confused, about the green belt's purpose. It is not a designation of quality or countryside—although those are important—but is a method of restricting urban sprawl. Over the past four years, the Government's record not only demonstrates our commitment, but is in stark contrast with events when the Opposition were in government.

The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) mentioned—and I am grateful to him—that since we entered office an additional 30,000 hectares of green belt has been designated. Contrary to his remarks, that is not a meaningless achievement. It demonstrates our commitment not only to maintaining, but, where possible, to increasing that designation. I can contrast that with many celebrated examples of de-designation under the previous Administration. For example, two out-of-town supermarkets were built at White Rose, which involved the loss of green belt. Furthermore, Bluewater park in the Thames Gateway resulted in the loss of more than 100 hectares of green belt, and added to the previous Government's record of destroying town centres by letting rip with out-of-town retail developments.

Planning policy guidance 2 "Green Belts" states that regional planning guidance sets the framework for greenbelt policy in an area, and that detailed greenbelt boundaries are set in development plans. The RPGs will say whether, in the view of the regional planning body, there is a case for a strategic review of a region's greenbelt boundaries. The new regional planning guidance 9 for the south-east, which covers the constituency of the hon. Member for Hertsmere, was published last month. It makes it clear that there is no regional case for reviewing greenbelt boundaries.

The hon. Member for Ashford said that other regional planning guidances in draft or final versions have recommended a review of green belts. That is true. However, let me make it clear that the Government have not initiated those proposals for reviews of boundaries. The process of regional strategic planning starts with local authorities making strategic proposals for development. Those proposals are examined by a panel appointed by the Secretary of State, which makes representations to him for each RPG. In some cases, panels have endorsed reviews of green belts; in others, they have dismissed that option.

Even where the respective regional planning guidance has identified the need for a review, such a review does not automatically lead to a reduction in the size of green belts. It may find no case for change or a need to increase the size of green belt or adjust the boundary.

Mr. Green

The Minister has tried to give hon. Members the impression that these matters are decided by the regional planning body and that the Government are a residual part of the process. However, as she knows, the proposals for housing numbers in the south-east that were proposed by the south-east regional planning committee, Serplan, were comprehensively rejected by the Government, who insisted on a bigger figure. The Government are taking all the decisions on reviewing the green belt, not the regional planning bodies.

Ms Hughes

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point. I shall explain why in a moment, using the south-east as an example.

Any review of the green belt would lead, at the most, only to the minimum adjustment necessary to achieve development plans. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire said that he accepts that entirely. If he accepts that the main purpose of greenbelt land is to contain potential urban sprawl, it is logical also to accept that an adjustment to the boundaries that pertain at the moment is entirely consistent with a commitment to the principle and actuality of the green belt and is not tantamount to saying that we have no regard for it. The hon. Gentleman said that greenbelt boundaries are not being set in aspic, which is correct. Allowing the potential for reviews of greenbelt boundaries does not in any way diminish our commitment to the principle and actuality of the current scale of greenbelt land.

On the south-cast, specifically Hertfordshire, I understand that Hertfordshire county council now proposes to review its structure plan to reflect the new regional planning guidance for the south-east that has just been put in place. I found it interesting that no Conservative Member said anything about housing needs, which is the other side of the coin. It is astonishing that they can talk about such issues without mentioning what is driving the debate. I can tell them that the Government intend that everybody should have the opportunity to have a decent home.

In the light of the consultation on the south-east draft RPG, we revised the proposed housing provision downwards from an average of 43,000 dwellings a year to 39,000 dwellings a year, at least for the next five years. It is possible that a higher rate of provision may be necessary from 2006 onwards, but that depends on the monitoring and assessment that needs to take place between then and now. I point out to the hon. Member for Ashford that in the case of Hertfordshire, that means that the number of new dwellings required each year in the period to 2006 will be no more than the county has already planned to provide. I am aware that, even before the RPG was published, the county council and district council in Hertfordshire had to think long and hard about the best way to meet existing housing needs. The county council opted for a strategy that relied on planned regeneration, with limited, small-scale peripheral development and an element of strategic development on greenfield locations.

The structure plan proposed two strategic releases of land from the green belt—one at Hemel Hempstead and the other at Stevenage, as the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) said. For the record, I should point out that although the county council proposed some deletions of greenbelt land, it also intended significant additions, resulting in a net gain of about 4,500 hectares of green belt. I do not accept the hon. Member for Hertsmere's argument that land is of different species, and that greenbelt land in one area cannot be replaced with equivalent land elsewhere. That is a specious and frankly ridiculous argument.

Mr. Clappison

I remind the Minister that she began her contribution by saying that the purpose of the green belt was to prevent the coalescence of communities.

Ms Hughes

Abs, Mutely, but the hon. Gentleman must accept that, even in the terms of his own arguments, it is nonsense to say that the altering and adjusting of boundaries in one place to de-designate land cannot be compensated for in any way by strategic additions to the green belt elsewhere.

Hertfordshire county council is reviewing its structure plan to take on board our planning guidance, which is that redevelopment of brownfield land and re-use of existing buildings should be considered before building on greenfield land. That is the right and proper course of action. As the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said, North Hertfordshire district council has sought to withdraw its development plan. That action has been challenged in the courts, and he will know that I cannot comment further while court action is pending. We shall have to await the outcome of that process.

Although I recognise the constituency concerns that have been expressed, I should say that I have heard a good deal of huffing and puffing from Opposition Members and very little substance in terms of this complex and difficult issue. They seem to be ignoring some very important facts. First, it is this Government who published the urban White Paper only six months ago. As the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) pointed out, it sets out a clear vision for achieving an urban renaissance, which is a very important part of the equation. If we can make our towns and cities more attractive and invest in quality services, there is less likely to be pressure to develop the countryside.

Secondly, it was this Government who put in place a firm target for re-using brownfield land, unlike the Opposition, who have a moving target at best. Our target, for which we are accountable, is that 60 per cent. of new dwellings should be built on previously developed land or delivered by converting existing buildings.

Thirdly, that target is backed by clear and firm planning guidance. The radical planning guidance for housing in PPG 3 has a clear sequential test that requires re-use of previously developed land before greenfield development is considered, and I am grateful to those hon. Members who acknowledged that fact. It also requires assessments of urban capacity such as those being undertaken in Hertfordshire and by many other local authorities. It seeks better quality development, design and layout, and better use of land than was ever achieved under the Conservative Government, who were profligate in their waste of land.

Fourthly, it was a Conservative Government who presided over a period of greenfield development and a scandalous waste of land. We are assessing brownfield land that is suitable for housing development.

Finally, we have done away with the Conservative policy of predict and provide. I disagree with the hon. Member for Ashford, who said that ours is a top-down approach. It is a bottom-up approach that gives responsibility to local authorities in regional context. It is a balanced, integrated policy that does not pretend that there are simple one-dimensional solutions to complex and competing pressures. by contrast, Tory policy is part of the bandwagon that we have come to expect, where the "not in my backyard" syndrome is presented as a substitute for substance and balance.

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