In the recent draft circular about green belts it is expressly reaffirmed that the essential characteristic of green belts is that their permanence and their protection should be long term. I stand firmly by that statement.
If green belt policy is to be successful, however, it is important that local planning authorities should, when drawing detailed green belt boundaries, make provision for necessary future development.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that statement. Does he accept that there has been great consternation as a result of the draft circular that he issued during the summer? Does he agree that the best way forward would be to ask any authority, if it feels that it has land in the green belts that is suitable for development, publicly to declare sites that can be developed so that the merits of every site may be examined? Does he accept that the final circular should be confined to extolling the success of our green belt policies and reminding the public of the need for eternal vigilance in protecting them?
I shall want carefully to examine my hon. Friend's proposal. I hope that my statement is absolutely clear. I am as committed as any of my predecessors to
preserving a strong and clear green belt policy. The Government have extended the approved green belt in the metropolitan area, especially in Kent, Essex and Hertfordshire, and in other areas such as Merseyside, Hampshire, Tyne and Wear and Nottingham. The extent of the London green belt has been increased by about 45 per cent. since 1979 and now measures about 1·2 million acres. As The Times clearly stated in response to the draft circular:
There is a case for revision of green belt boundaries; considerable tracts of the land are neither green (used for agriculture or accessible open space) nor much of a worthwhile girdle.
If we want the policy to survive, we must ensure that the detailed boundaries that are drawn are clear and defensible and can be maintained in the long term.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, rather than encroach further on the green belt, it would make more sense to provide more money for derelict land clearance, especially in areas such as the west midlands?
We have substantially increased the amount of money that is available for derelict land clearance and I hope that that programme will continue. It is essential that it should do so if it is to bring into reuse some of the land that has been left derelict by former industrial and other enterprises. However, it would be unreal to imagine that all our housing and development needs for the foreseeable future could be met in that way alone. The problem is to balance the needs of future development with the Government's clear desire to preserve a strong, firm, clear and permanent green belt policy.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concern and worry that the draft circular has created within Hertfordshire, especially in my constituency of Hertfordshire, South-West? What value and what weight is now to be attached to the county structure plans dealing with housing?
Where detailed boundaries have already been drawn up in local plans following a county structure plan, there is no suggestion that the boundaries should be redrawn. The circular is directing attention to instances where broad green belt areas have been designated in county structure plans and where the local plans have still to be drawn. That will be a relatively small matter, but it recommended that when drawing up these plans the local planning authorities should have regard to the essential needs of future development. If that is not done, I have to tell my hon. Friend that one will be driven eventually to breaking the green belt boundaries, which is the last thing that anyone wants to see happen.
Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear that green belt land does not have to be intensively farmed to secure his approval? Will he also make it clear that if the green belt in the metropolitan counties is diminished, the chances of development within the conurbations, which may be more desirable, will be considerably lessened, which will not be in anyone's interests?
Much of the misunderstanding is on the part of those who have not read the relevant paragraphs in the circular, and that can be said of some of the press comments. I accept the argument of the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), and there is no suggestion that the draft circular, which remains a draft, is proposing anything other than the most modest changes to meet particular difficulties that have arisen. We want to make sense of green belt policy so that it can be permanent, or at least long term. The policy is an essential part of the structure of our planning system and I am still considering many of the representations that I have received.
It can perhaps be accepted that the draft circular in itself is modest, but it becomes most worrying when read alongside the draft circular on housing land release. Does the Minister appreciate how benefits have accrued to the nation in both rural and urban areas as a result of green belt policies that have been created and implemented by successive Governments since the war? Does he understand that there are many on both sides of the House who feel that there are some things that are more important than mere speculators' profits? Will he now withdraw the draft circular?
That which the hon. Gentleman refers to as speculators' profits could well represent houses for those who want to have a home of their own. It does not help the argument to indulge in smears of that sort. There is a problem, but I have repeated firmly and clearly the Government's firm commitment to a long-term green belt policy. As I have said, the London green belt has been enlarged by about 45 per cent. over the past four years. That should be a token of the Government's concern. I shall take account of the anxieties that have been expressed on both sides of the House before I decide how further to proceed with the circular.