Structure Plan (North-East Hampshire)

Schedule 6 – in the House of Commons at 4:53 am on 25th July 1984.

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Photo of Mr Andrew Hunter Mr Andrew Hunter , Basingstoke 4:53 am, 25th July 1984

The debate of the past three hours has understandably generated widespread interest and considerable drama. When we turn from civil aviation to the Department of the Environment's draft circular 15/84 on land for housing, and the north-east Hampshire structure plan in particular, hon. Members could be forgiven for assuming that our deliberations have become more parochial. But the subject is important, because it raises the fundamental question of how far a local authority—in this case, Hampshire county council —should be free to determine the appropriate scale and pace of the provision of new housing and industrial development, bearing in mind local constraints—social, economic and environmental — and also regional and national planning objectives.

Having grasped the basic facts the scenario is straightforward. Hampshire county council, together with the three affected district councils—Hart, Basingstoke and Deane, and Rushmoor — have jointly agreed a strategy of rolling forward the structure plan for a three-year period, to take it up to 1991.

A second, more comprehensive review will begin shortly, to take the structure plan yet further forward to 1996, when important planning uncertainties have been resolved. The local authorities—the county council and the three districts—have determined an appropriate rate of new house building in the area: a rate of 1,865 houses a year for the three-year period. That figure is based on an assessment of local housing needs and a small proportion of what it is fashionable to call "in-migration" to the area.

At the public examination of the structure plan earlier this month, that rate of house building was challenged by a consortium of 10 of the largest house builders and by the House Builders Federation. Those august bodies claim that the county council's figure of 1,865 houses per year pays inadequate regard to regional and even national housing demand. Housing demand, of course, is a different concept from housing need. If demand rather than need is used as the chief criterion, the house builders argue that the figure should be between 2,300 and 2,700, or even more, houses per year. The house builders also demand that the structure plan be rolled forward to at least 1994, not 1991 as the county council proposes. The Environment Select Committee demonstrated the unreliability of the house builders' figures, especially in volume two of its report, at paragraph 500, in page 238.

On the surface the issue is fairly straightforward, but underneath lie some fundamental matters of principle. I shall discuss just three. There are others, but the hour is late and brevity is commendable. The first is the principle that local authorities should be free to determine the most appropriate rate of growth for their areas. The second is the need for balanced growth. The infrastructure, to use that word in its widest sense, must keep pace with the construction of houses. The third is the need to guard against the danger of over providing housing land in northeast Hampshire and other parts of the south-east of England, all for unproven claims that are advanced by builders.

I shall deal, first, with local authority determination. By no stretch of the imagination can it be said that northeast Hampshire has failed to take its share of new development. Since it was declared a regional growth area, the population has grown from 170,000 in 1961 to just under 250,000 in 1971 to nearly 300,000 now. That shows the huge increase in the population in the towns and villages of the area.

At the heart of the matter are several questions. Is Hampshire county council able to review this past growth-area label in the light of new circumstances? Should it not be able to do so? Moreover, is the reviewing of the structure plan the most appropriate mechanism for undertaking such a revision? I believe that the answer to these questions should be yes. I am glad to discover that at least two powerful allies have already declared their hand. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy, when Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, in an Adjournment debate in July 1982 said: It is important for my hon. Friends to understand that the regional strategy set some years ago is not of itself the route by which all future planning should flow. In the same debate on the Mid-Sussex growth area, he said: The status of the regional strategy is now that of useful historic source material which, as time goes by, will become increasingly out of date at the local level."—[Official Report, 13 July 1982; Vol. 27, c. 1012–13.] More recently, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Macfarlane), Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, answering a debate on planning and development in Berkshire, said: It seems to me that the review of the Berkshire structure plan 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." — [Official Report, 14 December 1983; Vol. 50, c. 1154.] It is comforting to find two Under-Secretaries of State accepting the argument that I seek to make. Moreover, the review of the Berkshire structure plan includes the Government's statement that areas designated as growth areas may be de-designated if a sufficiently strong case is advanced. I take further comfort from the fact that at the examination in public Hampshire county council more than amply proved the case for north-east Hampshire.

It is Hampshire county council's clearly expressed intention to slow down the rapid rate of growth in the north-east of the county. The reasons given are the severe under-provision of facilities in many parts of the area, and also local concern that the high rate of growth has had detrimental social and environmental effects.

I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), now the Minister for Housing and Construction. Speaking in the debate on the Mid-Sussex growth area, he said that it would be wrong for the Government to impose their presumed superior wisdom over those who live, move and have their being in the constituencies … the man in Whitehall does not always know best." — [Official Report, 13 July 1982; Vol. 27, c. 1012.] How those words contrast with the scandalous and infamous claim of the consortium's Mr. Tom Barron, who said: Anyway, what makes people who live in Berkshire think they own Berkshire? So much for local authority determination — the first underlying issue that I chose to select.

The second fundamental principle underlying the debate concerns the need for balanced growth. The infrastructure must keep pace with the construction of houses. The enormous scale of growth and development in north-east Hampshire has not been matched by a corresponding emphasis on providing new health care facilities, hospital beds, clinics, shops and community facilities in general. In particular, this is creating acute problems in health care. I am told that the inpatient hospital facilities in the West Surrey and North-East Hampshire health authority were basically structured and funded for a population of 170,000 to 190,000. The population now exceeds 270,000.

Planned extension and funding for additional care cannot be made available in the short term. It is not surprising, therefore, that the health authority has pleaded with the Department of the Environment, in a letter written by my namesake, Dr. Rosemary Hunter, — but no relation—in which she said: We are seriously concerned at the possible size of future housing developments and consequent population growth. There are already acute problems in health care. Patients are being separated both by distance and difficulties of transport from their supporting families as they are moved to hospitals outside the district.

Planners must be concerned with teachers as well as with schools, with nurses as well as with hospital buildings. That was an important message from the Select Committee. The problem cannot be solved when the Department of the Environment frequently works in isolation from other Departments. It certainly cannot be solved entirely by developers putting forward capital contributions towards new infrastructure provision, useful though that is. The continuing revenue implications often fall on local authorities and other agencies which are affected by substantial public sector cuts in revenue expenditure.

I was impressed further by evidence given at the examination in public by the Thames water authority. It affirmed that work on new and unplanned projects would deprive existing projects and services of already overdue remedial maintenance of both sewerage systems and water supplies.

The third underlying issue is to guard against the danger of over-providing housing land to satisfy unproven so-called "needs" claimed by builders. We must be careful to guard against the danger of throwing land at the housing problem, hoping that that will solve the real needs. It will not. How much land would have to be turned over to housing before housing land prices come down? If we used that simple equation, we could well witness the destruction of what is left of rural north-east Hampshire. We could sacrifice some of our most precious countryside and it still would not make even a small dent in the problem of housing land prices.

The consortium's claim that north-east Hampshire must accommodate a claimed shortfall of housing land in the south-east would lead to precisely that kind of over-provision. Neither the consortium nor the House Builders Federation has conducted anything remotely matching the comprehensive research of the county or district councils or the standing conference.

The claim by the builders that there is a shortfall of land for 78,000 houses in the south-east of England in approved structure plans up to 1991 is disputed by separate and more recent calculations undertaken by the Council for the Protection of Rural England. The Select Committee found that the builders' figures were, frankly, bogus and the CPRE proved at the examination in public that the claimed shortfall was a monstrous exaggeration that failed to take account of the substantial developments since 1981. According to reliable calculations, there is a surplus, not a shortfall, of 120,000 dwellings in south-east England.

The massive differences in those figures show that a more reliable regional picture is needed in the form of strategic regional guidance. Structure plans are no substitute for that broader picture. One cannot add up a number of separate structure plan decisions to arrive at a regional picture. That is a recipe for the over-provision of houses about which I have warned. That is also the unequivocal message transmitted by all affected county and district councils and, most strongly, by the standing conference.

The consortium's proposed revision of the structure plan is entirely unacceptable. It is fallacious. It is opposed by the county council, the district councils and the parish councils and to all intents and purposes by everyone who lives in the area. That opposition has also been expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) and for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley).

I have tried to argue, above all, that local authorities should be free to determine the most appropriate rate of growth for their areas. I have tried to argue that that growth must balance infrastructure with housing. I have tried to argue that the dangers of over-provision of land for housing must be avoided. I hope that those points will be taken to heart. One would be happier about the future of north-east Hampshire, which indeed belongs to the people who live there, if those conditions were met. As I have said before and make no apology for saying again, I am not prepared to stand idly by and watch the further rape of north-east Hampshire.

Photo of George Young George Young Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 5:07 am, 25th July 1984

The thoughtful speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) deserved a broader audience than it is every likely to get at 5 o'clock on a Thursday morning. He spoke forcefully about the fears of his constituents in north-east Hampshire over recent proposals by Consortium Developments Ltd.

As my hon. Friend knows, the portfolio for planning matters is held by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Macfarlane), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, who is at present representing the Government at the Olympic games in Los Angeles. It therefore falls to me to reply on his behalf, but I discussed this with him before he left and I know that he has taken a personal interest in the matters raised today.

I listened carefully to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke about the development of land for housing in north-east Hampshire. I accept at once that this is a controversial and emotive subject which has aroused deep feelings in his constituency, at least since the submission to the then Secretary of State of the original north-east Hampshire structure plan in July 1978.

Perhaps I may put the matter in context by explaining the role of structure plans in bringing forward land for development. The planning system, including the processes involved in the preparation and review of structure plans, together with joint land availability studies prepared by builders and local planning authorities, are the main vehicles for ensuring an adequate supply of land for housing.

Structure plans include policies and proposals for the scale and general location of housing provision. In preparing structure plans, local planning authorities are required to take account of guidance issued by the Secretary of State, such as the strategic guidance which he has issued for the south-east region. The Government also provide other material which is of assistance to local planning authorities. For example, the Government statistical service publishes population projections and migration estimates for counties and makes available projections of the numbers of households.

When plans are submitted to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, they have to be accompanied by an explanatory memorandum. This provides the justification for the policies; for example, the assumptions on which provision for housing is based. It also has to state the relationship of the policies in the plan to expected development and other use of land in neighbouring areas. When the plan has been submitted, there are opportunities for neighbouring planning authorities and other interests, including house builders and members of the public, to object to the proposals.

Once a plan is submitted to my right hon. Friend, he considers the plan and the objections made to it. Should his consideration of the plan and objections show that further information is needed, an examination in public provides an opportunity to investigate the matter and obtain further information before my right hon. Friend reaches a decision on the plan. Approval of structure plans by the Secretary of State, with modifications as appropriate, enables the Government to ensure that provision for housing in the plan is adequate and that plans achieve a reasonable balance between the needs of development and the interests of conservation.

The "Land for Housing" circular which we issued earlier this month emphasises the key role of the planning system in meeting the demand for housing and stresses the important contribution which the joint land availability studies can make in ensuring that suitable land is made available for development. The circular's main objectives are, first, to ensure that the planning system provides an adequate and continuing supply of housing land, taking account of market demand; secondly, to stress the Government's commitment to the maintenance of well-established conservation policies, green belts and the preservation of good agricultural land; thirdly, to emphasise the importance of making full use for development of existing land in urban areas, and to ensure that plans are altered if they are based on out-of-date assumptions.

The Government hope that the circular will change attitudes and lead over the next few years to more provision for housing in development plans, where appropriate, and that provision in plans will be more in line with market needs. We are now considering how best we can implement these policy objectives.

Returning now to north-east Hampshire, I can understand that the issue of housing development should be controversial locally. The area extends from the Surrey border along the River Blackwater in the east to the small towns of Kingsclere and Overton in the west. It includes the whole of the districts of Hart and Rushmoor, and most of the borough of Basingstoke and Deane. The main towns are Aldershot, Basingstoke, Farnborough and Fleet. There are many smaller towns and villages, well known to my hon. Friend, but the major part of the area is open countryside, mainly well farmed, with large expanses of forest and heathland. Part of the north Wessex area of outstanding natural beauty lies in the area. One of its special features is the considerable amount of land used by the Ministry of Defence for training and other purposes. The area is well served by both road and rail links to the east and west and south-west. The M3 provides easy access to London and Heathrow, and the rail service links Basingstoke, Fleet and Farnborough to London. North east Hampshire is thus an attractive place for employment and for housing.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, there is pressure for new development from those already in the area and from other parts of the south-east region, including London. There has, in fact, been considerable expansion over the past 20 years, which itself has created more pressure for development. Between 1961 and 1978, 11,500 town development houses were built at Basingstoke. More recently, housing has been provided predominantly by the private sector. The county council has stated that between 1976 and 1982 housing completions averaged 1,890 dwellings per year. In 1983, 2,100 dwellings were completed. Population growth was in the order of 15 per cent. between 1971 and 1981.

Against that background of growth it is natural that people living in the area should be anxious that its attractions are maintained and that proper services are provided.

The adequacy and distribution of housing provision in north-east Hampshire for the period up to 1988 was discussed at the examination in public which took place in March and April 1979. It was clear there, as the panel recorded, that the great majority of the local inhabitants agreed with the cautious approach adopted by the county council in formulating its proposals for housing growth.

The panel nevertheless considered that the level of demand for housing would be higher than that forecast by the county council. It took the view that the provision within the plan would not be sufficient to accommodate the likely demand for housing up to 1988. It recommended that provision for a further 4,000 dwellings should be made. The Secretary of State proposed to modify the plan accordingly, but, having considered objections to that proposal, he approved the plan on 20 October 1980 with a reduced additional provision of 2,500 dwellings, the land for which is to be made available in the period 1984 to 1988. Total provision in the approved plan for the period 1976 to 1988 is in the range of 22,000 to 24,000 dwellings.

Hampshire county council now needs to look forward to the period beyond 1988. In fact, the guidance which my right hon. Friend has given in circular 15/84 "Land for Housing" is that any alterations to structure plans should now be prepared covering the period for at least 10 years ahead. The county council has, however, submitted to my right hon. Friend a proposed alteration to the structure plan which rolls the housing provision forward for three years, to 1991. The alteration also proposes the phased construction of the Blackwater valley route, a new road to relieve congestion on existing north-south roads in the Farnborough and Aldershot area.

The council describes this as a first stage alteration; it explains that this will be followed by a stage two which will be a comprehensive review which will examine afresh the appropriate strategy for north-east Hampshire and, in the light of that examination, will put forward appropriate policies and proposals for north-east Hampshire for the period to 1996. The county council has, I understand, already started work on stage two and expects to submit resulting alterations to my right hon. Friend in 1986.

In relation to the already submitted alteration, the question of housing provision has again proved to be controversial and the matter was one of those discussed at the examination in public which took place at Farnborough between 3 July and 6 July.

The discussion covered, amongst other things, the question of the extent to which demand for housing in the area should be met. The question of the provision of infrastructure has also, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, been subject to controversy. It has been argued, in particular, that existing health care facilities are inadequate even for the existing population, and that any further large population growth would lead to even worse health care. There was a quite lengthy discussion of this issue at the examination.

The panel which conducted the examination is now preparing a report on its consideration of the discussions. When that report is received my right hon. Friend will have to consider in the light of it, and in the light of all relevant objections and representations received, whether to approve the alteration, with or without modification. If modifications are proposed they will be advertised and there will be an opportunity for objections to them to be made and considered. Clearly, in the absence of the panel report, I cannot say any more at the moment about the structure plan alteration.

I know that those who feel strongly about housing development in the area have been greatly disturbed by the proposal recently announced by Consortium Developments Ltd. to build about 5,000 new houses at Hook. I understand that remarks by some of those sponsoring the development have caused anxiety to my hon. Friend's constituents. At the examination in public, Consortium put forward its case for a significant increase in the housing provision in the plan area, but the panel did not allow any discussion of any site-specific proposal for development at Hook, since that would have been outside the proper scope of the examination. If Consortium wishes to pursue its proposal it will have to make a planning application, which will be for the local authority to consider in the first instance.

My right hon. Friend might subsequently become formally involved if the matter is referred to him either as a substantial departure from the development plan or on appeal against refusal of planning permission or failure to decide the application. He must be in a position to deal impartially with any proposal that does come before him in that way. Therefore, though I have noted what my hon. Friend has said, I am sure he will understand that it would not be right for me to make any comment now on the merits of Consortium's proposal.

These matters must be dealt with through the normal planning procedures. All that I can do is assure my hon. Friend that in coming to any decisions, both on the structure plan alteration and on any specific proposal for Hook that comes before him, my right hon. Friend will take account of all relevant representations received, having regard also to the Government's policies on the provision of housing land as set out in circular 15/84.

I believe that my hon. Friend knows the position of the Department and especially its role in considering the structure plan. At this stage I can go no further than I have already gone. I assure my hon. Friend that what he has said in the debate will be taken into account by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when he comes to make a decision.