Orders of the Day — Telecommunications Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:03 am on 14th December 1983.
I raise the subject of planning and development in central Berkshire on the motion of the Adjournment of the House.
This issue is of crucial importance to my electors. I shall put the problem into a statistical perspective.
The Department of the Environment instructed the royal county of Berkshire that it had to make provision for the building of 8,000 houses in central Berkshire. It was then up to the county, through the central Berkshire structure plan, to allocate where these houses went. I feel that the county council behaved less than fairly in allocating 5,150 of these houses to the district council area of Bracknell, and this is very much to be regretted. I am the first to realise that this is not a matter for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment who will answer the debate.
I mentioned that this issue causes considerable concern in my constituency. It unites those of all political persuasions. It has the full backing of every member of the Bracknell district council, many preservation groups and all the parish and town councils making up my constituency.
Let me explain some of the reasons why we oppose the development. First, it will spoil outstandingly beautiful countryside, particularly round the villages of Warfield and Binfield. There are at present 600 to 800 houses in the parish of Warfield. It is proposed through the structure plan foisted on the county council by the Government to permit the building of 4,000 houses in Warfield in addition to the present 600 to 800. It is also proposed that there should be an extra 300 houses in Binfield.
Next, we object strongly because we do not have the infrastructure in the area to cope with this development, and I am particularly thinking of the Sandhurst area, which must bear the brunt of the remaining development. The way in which the area has expanded in recent years has meant that more than sufficient houses have been built for the available hospitals, schools and particularly roads. We are in the process of ruining established communities in Sandhurst, Warfield and Binfield.
At the same time, we are jeopardising that great success story, Bracknell new town. It has now reached its optimum size, as outlined by the New Towns Act, and it would be sheer folly dramatically to increase Bracknell so that it spreads to the south to Sandhurst and to the north to Warfield and Binfield. Bracknell needs time to bed down and it will not be allowed that process if the structure plan is implemented.
Our next objection is that there is no longer a proven demand for these houses. The Bracknell News carried out a survey that showed that house price increases in Bracknell in the last year have been running at 7 per cent. We do not need to be greatly enlightened economists to realise that with the cost of living and average wage increases also running at about 7 per cent., there cannot be a great shortage of supply or a great excess in demand, otherwise house prices would have been shooting up much faster.
Speaking as a poacher turned gamekeeper—in that until recently I was a director of a substantial development company in the midlands—I do not believe the statistics that we have been given by the development industry. The industry has every right to try to persuade us that we should develop, but we, as the representatives of Berkshire, have every right to point out that those statistics are false and dangerous.
I will put the problem in a national perspective. If we continue to force the county of Berkshire to allow the building of 8,000 extra houses in central Berkshire, we could be allowing one long urban sprawl to develop along the M4 and M3 from London to Reading and perhaps eventually to Bristol. It is not wanted by the people of Berkshire or, for that matter, of Hampshire. Contrast that with the Government's excellent record in rejuvenating inner cities. An immense amount of taxpayers' money has rightly been put into rejuvenating the inner cities, and that has had all-party support in the House and in the community. It is wholly contrary to encouraging people and industry to stay in the inner cities to allow mass extra development down the M4 in Berkshire.
As illustrated by the statement on regional policy yesterday, the Government are committed to ensuring not only that the regions will survive the world economic recession but that their employment opportunities will be increased. I cannot believe that encouraging extra development in Berkshire can do anyting but jeopardise the employment prospects and the economy of many hard-pressed regions.
In summary, we have a policy that is completely out of date for the 1980s and the 1990s. It is a 1960s policy, based on a period of low unemployment and high prosperity, when my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Sir W. van Straubenzee), who previously represented Bracknell, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Mr. Wood), who so ably led Bracknell district council, were being told by major employers, "We will not expand in Bracknell; we will not even come to Bracknell because there are no houses for our employees." That is history. Today when I visit the major employers in Bracknell they tell me without exception that they do not require extra houses on a large scale and that they, like the rest of the community, are opposed to the structure plan.
If we are not careful we shall continue with an outdated policy that is not in the national interest and most certainly not in the interests of my electors. Its logical conclusion would be industrial wastelands in the midlands and the north and total desecration of the countryside in Berkshire and elsewhere in the so-called golden triangle. I cannot believe that my hon. Friend can want that policy to succeed. No doubt he will realise that it is out of date.
We are not Luddites. We do not believe that the earth is flat. Of all hon. Members of the House, with my ex-development interest I cannot be called a starry-eyed environmentalist. We can cope with modest development. Evolution or in-filling in parts of Bracknell is in order. We are not against any development, and certainly not against the building industry, but we are completely opposed to the swamping of our beautiful county against the wishes of the population. I plead with my hon. Friend to act, and to act quickly.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for permitting me a moment or two—and it will be no more—in what is essentially his debate to reinforce what he said, knowing the area so well, having had the honour to represent it until last June. He is a most valued member of the team of Members of Parliament in Berkshire. I think it will be agreed that we have worked as a team. It is typical of his energy that at 2 o'clock in the morning he was initiating this debate.
Throughout we have been received with every courtesy by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. He does his job with ability and courtesy, which we appreciate, as we appreciate his presence tonight.
By next October I shall have represented this area for 25 years, yet I do not remember any issue upon which more people have felt more strongly. This is not restricted to cranks; these are ordinary, quiet people who feel deeply about the issue. Secondly, having represented the area for so long I believe that we can say of Berkshire, and especially of the area that my hon. Friend and I represent, that it has taken its share—some would say more than its share—of the necessary expansions that have taken place since the second world war, and that it deserves consideration now. I therefore warmly support all that my hon. Friend has said.
The residents of east Berkshire and Wokingham have every reason to be grateful for the manner in which the debate has been introduced at this early hour of the morning. I am grateful for the constructive way in which my hon. Friends the Members for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) and for Wokingham (Sir W. van Straubenzee) have presented their arguments. I assure them that we still continue to take every consideration and keep an open door policy so that every representation that they wish to make will be recognised and honoured fully.
Perhaps I might begin by painting some of the background which I, as a resident of Berkshire for some 14 years, understand fully. In the past 20 years, Berkshire has been one of the most rapidly growing counties in the country. The emergence of the M4 to the north and of the M3 to the south have triggered off an enormous expansion which, at some stages, the ancillary services have been unable to keep up with in regard to some towns and villages in the county. Berkshire's population has increased from 404,000 in 1951 to well over 680,000 in 1981. That represents an increase of 69 per cent. While the population of England and Wales increased by 1 per cent. between 1976 and 1982, Berkshire's rose by 8 per cent. It is interesting to note that, in 1951, the population of central Berkshire was 198,000. By 1983 it had risen to more than 400,000. That gives some idea of the scale of the anxiety of residents of Wokingham and east Berkshire.
Central Berkshire comprises the districts of Bracknell, Wokingham and Reading and the eastern part of Newbury district. It has witnessed the substantial and highly successful growth of Bracknell new town and, on its edges, the significant growth of Reading. In Bracknell, the population has risen from 5,000 when the new town was designated in 1949 to 49,000 when the coporation was wound up in 1982. During that period about 19,000 houses were built as were some 122 factories totalling 318,000 sq m of floor space and some 83,000 sq m of offices. In all, some 25,000 jobs were created. Currently there are commitments for a further 51,000 sq m of offices.
In Reading the population has grown from 114,000 in 1951 to more than 133,000 in 1983. Employment has more than doubled. Most significant of all has been the growth of Reading as an office centre. About 137,000 sq m of office space was permitted between 1976–82. All of those figures confirm the substantial development which has occurred in Berkshire, especially in central Berkshire. I therefore understand fully my hon. Friend's anxiety at the implications if such growth is to continue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East rightly drew attention to the attractions of royal Berkshire. Much of it is indeed beautiful and its chief attractions have been recognised and safeguarded by the designation of the greater part of west Berkshire and the western part of central Berkshire, which comprise the north Wessex downs, as an area of outstanding natural beauty. Moreover, the north-eastern part of central Berkshire, including the Thameside areas, is designated as an area of great landscape value. There are other areas of landscape quality in the county. In central Berkshire alone there are 20 or so conservation areas and many listed buildings and ancient monuments.
It is important to reassure my hon. Friends and their constituents of my right hon. Friend's recognition of the permanence of the green belt. I give them a categorical assurance that the green belt is permanent and fully recognised.
I recognise and accept the importance of safeguarding both the special areas and the general character of the county against excessive development pressures but, on the other hand, excessive restriction of development could result in a loss of economic vitality, which would have implications for the area and possibly for the national economy, towards which Berkshire makes and can continue to make an important contribution.
Of course, economic activity in the county has been a focus for development. I mentioned Bracknell new town and the growth of Reading. Economic activity in the county has benefited from those developments, but I accept that there is a need to take stock regularly to ensure that the pace of development does not outgrow the capacity of the area to absorb it without damage or without creating imbalance between the provision of employment and housing and the provision of services.
The average rate of house building in central Berkshire over the past decade has, of course, reflected the development in Bracknell new town. That point concerns my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East. 'The winding up of the development corporation, bringing to an end the period of induced growth, has led to a reduction in the average building rate, and the county council has been concerned that the provision of land for housing should take account of that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was able to agree last year that the release of land under policy H4—my hon. Friends will, I hope, forgive me if I do not refer to the details of policy H4, but everybody who represents that area knows what I mean—of the central Berkshire structure plan, which is a contingent policy, need not commence until the end of 1983, given the current building rate of about 3,000 a year.
In approving the structure plan in 1980 my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State referred to the need for monitoring, which might suggest a need for adjustment in the pace of growth, and there has been a flexible approach.
The modification to the housing policies in the structure plan caused great anxiety within the county, but considerable time has been allowed to enable the county council in consultation with the district councils to search for the most suitable sites, taking into account the environmental issues and the problems of infrastructure. The county council has had a difficult task to identify sites for the additional housing provision, and I am pleased that it has made progress.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East said, the Berkshire county council has suggested that a substantial proportion of the additional housing should be provided within Bracknell district but that it does not consider that there will be a need to release the greater part of the land required for that housing until after 1986.
The allocation of land for the additional housing is essentially a matter for the district councils in central Berkshire together with the county council, and I understand that Bracknell district council will deal with this matter in its local plans; there will of course be opportunity for public discussion of any proposed allocations made in the local plans.
The developments that have taken place in central Berkshire in recent years and that have given rise to concern over the rate and scale of growth in the county are largely the result of planning permissions, or commitments to development, existing when the structure plan was approved and are not the consequence of the modification to the central Berkshire structure plan.
It is of course essential that proper account should be taken of the impact that development has had in the areas where it has taken place, and provision for new development should be sensitive to the environment and should have regard to the capacity of the area to absorb further growth. The Berkshire county council is anxious that unrestrained development should not be allowed but that there should be some trailing off of housing development to protect existing communities and the environment. I fully accept its right to express that concern.
The county council made its proposal to alter policy 1–14 of the central Berkshire structure plan to strengthen its control over the rate of land release, pending a full reappraisal of the housing policies to be undertaken as part of the council's review of its structure plans.
My hon. Friend will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State rejected the county council's proposal, primarily because he considered that it would not be appropriate to deal with the single issue of policy H4 now, in isolation, when the county council intends very shortly to publish its proposals for a full review of its structure plans.
I know that the county council attached importance to its proposal to alter policy H4, but I am sure that it recognises that there will be advantage in looking at the problems arising from a continuing pressure for development in a comprehensive way, taking into account not only housing but employment, development and, of course, the all-important infrastructure provision. To have dealt with the alternative on its own would have delayed work on the review of the structure plan, which will provide the opportunity for a broad reassessment of planning policies.
It is within the framework of the formal review of the structure plans that future planning and development control policies should be worked out. My right hon. Friend referred to the opportunity for reassessment which will be given by the review when he met Conservative councillors from Berkshire county council, including the chairmen of some levy committees, last month.
My hon. Friend will forgive me if I am not as forthcoming as he might wish on some of these matters, but he will understand that the responsibility for proposals to alter the structure plan following the review is the county council's and that the council must submit proposals to my right hon. Friend for approval. Before any such proposals are approved they will need to go through the statutory procedures, including public consultation. That process ensures that all views, including those which my hon. Friend has expressed, will be taken into account, and the county council will be able to bring forward any evidence in support of its proposals.
I can assure my hon. Friends that when my right hon. Friend and I consider the proposals put to us by the Berkshire county council we will listen carefully to all the arguments with an open mind. I give my hon. Friends that categorical assurance. I am bound to say, however, that proposals to restrict future levels of housing and employment development will need to be justified by reference to analysis of trends in population, household growth, and the local economy, and also to the county council's assessment of the capacity of the area to accommodate development and the need to safeguard the environment and preserve the quality of life.
It will also be necessary for the county council to take account of advice current at the relevant time on the provision of land for housing and on industrial development, but my right hon. Friend, in announcing that the draft circulars on housing and green belts are to be revised, has stressed the Government's commitment to conservation and the preservation of good agricultural land. The revised circulars will emphasise the role of planning as a mechanism for balancing the need for development, the interests of conservation and the need to ensure that structure plans deal in broad terms with the scale of provision needed for housing developments while taking full account of local factors.
My hon. Friends have rightly referred to the strains which rapid growth has placed upon infrastructure in central Berkshire. Certainly the implications for infrastructure provision are an important consideration in deciding on levels of growth. Development may not always wholly finance the infrastructure needed to support it, particularly where preliminary infrastructure is needed to open up areas, or where, for example, the development has traffic consequences beyond its immediate area. I understand that fully. The consideration of infrastructure provision, the provison of schools and of public services generally is an essential part of the overall consideration of future levels of growth. All these issues will have a bearing on the proposals to be put forward in the structure plans review.
It seems to me that the review of the Berkshire structure plans on which the county council is now engaged is the right route to resolve the objection my hon. Friends have raised to a continued fast rate of growth in the county.
We shall watch the progress and preparation of the plans within the county. All these matters will be taken into full consideration when we deliberate upon them. This has been a most important debate, and I realise that people throughout the county feel acutely about these matters. this debate will have an important bearing on how local representatives assess the problems in coming months. I am grateful to my hon. Friends for raising the matter.