South-East Dorset

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 9:43 pm on 12th June 1985.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Major.]

10 pm

Photo of Mr Robert Adley Mr Robert Adley , Christchurch

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity of raising a matter that is of continuing concern to and in my constituency and throughout the county of Dorset. There are four county constituencies in Dorset, and I do not think that my hon. Friends will argue too much with me if I say that overall mine is the most vulnerable to the matter that concerns me tonight — the persistent and ruthless pressure for development in south-east Dorset.

Therefore, my purpose is to ask the Minister—whom I am delighted to see in his place—a simple question. Will he convey to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment the view of the Dorset Members of Parliament—certainly the four of us who represent the county constituencies — that we look to see a reversal of the Government's policy, which at the moment appears to be one of development at all cost?

My. hon. Friend the Minister has today been much concerned with sporting matters. I shall make one sporting allusion, if I may. If he regards this Chamber as a stadium, and his right hon. Friends and himself in the Government as the players on the pitch, those of us behind him, the supporters, in many of the shire counties, are feeling restless over the erosion of the green belt and the constant pressures for development. I hope that he will see his way towards ameliorating the present policy. If he does not, I fear that some members of the supporters club may desert him or, even worse, may eventually come down on to the pitch and demand a change of policy.

The main problem is that the local authorities in my constituency—the Christchurch borough council and a portion of the Wimborne council—feel more and more that they have lost control over their environment. My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker), who is here tonight, had an Adjournment debate as long ago as 1 July 1981, when he raised, thoroughly and competently, the question of the erosion of the environment and, in his particular case, the gobbling up of agricultural land by development.

We believe—I have the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset South (Viscount Cranborne), who regrets that he cannot be here this evening—that local planning decisions should be respected and overturned only in the most exceptional circumstances. We believe that the exploitation of the planning laws, plus the Department's policy, is rendering our structure plan absolutely meaningless.

Christchurch and Wimborne are small local authorities and are vulnerable to the constant pressure on them. As the chief executive of the Christchurch council said in a letter to me: Therefore, every time the local authority is called upon to make a judgment is is not free to do so in the light of just the local situation but always has to have regard to what the Department of the Environment might decide should the matter go to an appeal. He goes on to say: In summary it is my opinion that the appeal situation in planning is objectionable in terms of democratic accountability and is insidious on its effect on elected Members when considering applications. I do not wish to weary the House with endless quotations, but should like to note a few more. This afternoon, Mr. Malcolm Edwards—in addition to being chairman of the Christchurch housing committee, he is chairman of the Christchurch and East Dorset Conservative Association—said: We have the ridiculous situation where councils decide planning applications not on the basis of what is right or wrong, but what is likely to win on appeal. The great problem of the planning situation is that it just is not recognised that there is a level beyond which an area becomes saturated and its infrastructure cannot cope with anything more. He went on to ask: What is the planning process all about if it is not to preserve the amenities of the environment? Recently, my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North and I had a meeting with members and officers of the Wimborne council. Their pleas are plaintive. They feel that they have virtually lost control of their ability to make strategic planning decisions.

The chief executive of the Wimborne district council said: The Authority has felt inhibited from imposing any serious policies of restraint, especially in its local plans, despite public opposition to continued growth, to a large extent because of the tone of the guidance being given by the Secretary of State in circulars, and in public speeches, with their emphasis on meeting demand for housing land, especially as Wimbourne is an area of continuing high demand. This has meant that in all the local plans it has prepared so far, the Council has deliberately proposed growth at the upper end of the range allowed under the South East Dorset Structure Plan. The Structure Plan is now being reviewed, partly because the intention steadily to reduce the rate of building and the amount of land available for development has not been achieved. However, the tone of government advice again makes it difficult to envisage this review successfully leading to the adoption of any strategy for the restraint of growth, even this should prove well justified. The 1984–85 Dorset council monitoring report shows that more people are moving to Dorset than to any other county. The county council's reaction is "We need to review the south-east Dorset structure plan." People in my constituency do not agree. We need much stricter adherence to the present plan or the structure plan will be regarded not just as dead but as having been a cynical exercise public misrepresentation. My hon. Friend the Minister knows full well what was done to seek public opinion on these county structure plans.

Much of south-east Dorset lives under the shadow of the ambitions of Bournemouth, and Bournemouth's interests differ greatly from those of my constituents and my colleagues. If I illustrate the position in two respects, I think I shall clearly point out to my hon. Friend the Minister just how Bournemouth's insidious influence is affecting my constituency. One is at and the other is adjacent to, Hum airport. Christchurch council is the planning authority for Hum airport. Hum lies wholly within the Christchurch council area, yet the airport management committee that runs the airport is dominated by people not from Christchurch but from Bournemouth although Christchurch is represented. The airport management committee has shown an arrogant disregard for not only the Christchurch council's policies but the council's legal role as the planning authority. When the British Aerospace factory closed recently, the Christchurch council policy was simply to keep aerospace-related employment at Hum airport, on the site and in the buildings formerly occupied by British Aerospace. The site is zoned already for industrial use and it is the ideal place in which to carry out these activities.

The airport management committee, without any reference to Christchurch council as the planning authority, has leased two of the large hangers for grain storage. Warehousing means a change of use in planning terms, but no reference was made to the legal planning authority. This has had a serious effect, because companies that we are trying to attract to the buildings at Hum airport—such as Lovaux, which recently took out a lease on some space for aerospace-related purposes— find now that grain is stored there. This is a fire risk and a serious dust threat to high-technology aerospace developments. Lovaux finds this aspect extremely unattractive. It was told nothing about it at the time it signed its lease.

The planning aspect alone is serious enough, but there is a worse implication. Some Bournemouth councillors are desperately trying to aid and abet the creation of an enormous development in my constituency at Hum by the Carroll group of companies. If Christchurch is successful in attracting aerospace-related employment into Hum airport, into the buildings that already exist, that will make the Carroll proposition a great deal less attractive.

We have the serious situation, therefore, of councillors not representing Christchurch deliberately trying to thwart the wishes of the elected local authority in its effort to develop jobs and industry in the buildings that already exist.

As for the Carroll development, Mr. Gerald J. Carroll —of the Carroll Group of Companies, Carroll House, 2·6 Catherine Place, London, SW1E 6HF—is a great Dorset philanthropist. Mr. Carroll is a lover of the Dorset countryside, with a humanitarian concern for the employment prospects of my constituents. I say that slightly with tongue in cheek, to put it mildly. In total, 576 acres of my constituency have been subject to persistent and ruthless attempts by the Carroll Group of Companies to obtain planning permission to transform this area of my constituency.

Earlier this evening, I spoke to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson), who used to represent the area, and I have his strong support for saying that we look to the Government to do all they can to uphold the planning authority, Christchurch council, in its objections to what is proposed.

As I mentioned, Mr. Carroll is backed by certain interests in Bournemouth, and they have an incentive to ensure the failure of the present policy of Christchurch at Hum. Mr. Carroll is quoted in the Evening Echo as recently as 8 June in relation to his 576-acre scheme as saying: It would probably go to appeal. He went on to say that he believed that in their efforts to assist investment and employment in the region, the Government would approve it.

Mr. Carroll wants housing and shops; the factories in his plan are just makeweight. We have plenty of empty factories in my constituency. In any event, the building of factories does not of itself create jobs. Thus, the great myth is being dangled before my constituents that somehow this development will create an enormous amount of employment. Mr. Carroll's concern for the employment situation in my constituency is purely synthetic and is a quid pro quo for permission to build shops and houses.

Christchurch is implacably opposed to it, as is the Wimborne council and the New Forest district council. It would distort the pattern of life throughout the area

I said earlier that Mr. Carroll was a lover of the Dorset countryside. I have discovered that the Dorset Naturalist Trust has been offered £10,000 to establish a nature reserve as part of Mr. Carroll's plans. If I were a nice man, I might think what a decent chap Mr. Carroll was. If I were rather suspicious, I might think that that was one way of seeing that a potential objector was bought off. The use of money to influence attitudes on controversial planning decisions is wholly unacceptable. I do not, of course, hold the Dorset Naturalist Trust in any way responsible. I cannot say the same for Mr. Carroll.

In my constituency there is a number of small communities. They are in danger of being swamped. Indeed, some already have been. There is a completely inadequate infrastructure in relation to the police, doctors and so on. The list is endless of facilities which have not been provided in a vain attempt to try to keep up with the endless demands of developers.

The vital point to make in national terms is that this is a north versus south issue. So long as the Government go on allowing, indeed encouraging, developers to develop in the prosperous parts of southern England, so long will those developers not be encouraged to turn their attention towards developments in the northern, and less prosperous, parts of the country.

The Minister should accept, therefore, that this is not just a Dorset problem. Hon. Members who represent constituencies in all parts of southern England are becoming more and more concerned over this problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Ward) will, I hope, deal with the question of oil. The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 has played absolute havoc with housing in my constituency. Again to quote Mr. Malcolm Edwards: We haven't got room for our own people and we are obliged to accommodate people who come from elsewhere with no previous contact with the borough. We have road problems. A number of my constituents in Hampreston lane in Longham now face the appalling prospect of a huge road being built literally on their front doorsteps, and because it is not a trunk road they will probably be unable to claim adequate compensation.

In a speech on 14 March to the County Planning Officers Society, the Secretary of State for the Environment spoke of his presumption "in favour of development." That is uacceptable to Dorset unless — and it is a strong "unless" — the district council concerned is completely in favour of it. Once this land is built upon, the development cannot be undone. In my part of Dorset we are threatened with the policies of the Department of the Environment, the ambitions of Bournemouth and, frankly, the greed of certain big developers. I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment to take note of the strength of feeling on this issue.

Photo of Mr John Ward Mr John Ward , Poole 10:16 pm, 12th June 1985

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) for the opportunity to make a brief contribution to this Adjournment debate upon the environment of south-east Dorset. Those who are familiar with the county of Dorset will be aware of what a delightful place it is. I can well understand the concern about the environment that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has so ably expressed on behalf of his constituents.

In the time available to me, I wish to refer briefly to the environmental aspects of oil exploration, both onshore and offshore, particularly in the area of Poole harbour. Hon. Members will be aware that it is planned to expand the production of the Wytch farm oilfield, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Cranborne), from 4,000 barrels a day to 44,000 barrels a day. Dorset county council has recently granted planning approval for four exploration wells on Furzey island, which is in the middle of Poole harbour. We are pleased to know that separate approvals will be needed before production wells can be sunk in the harbour.

I pay tribute to the way in which British Petroleum has worked with the Dorset county council and all other interested parties to ensure that every precaution is taken to protect the environment. This is essential not only for the boat owners and holiday makers, whom we welcome throughout the year, but for the many fishermen who depend upon the harbour for their livelihood.

We must not, however, overlook the positive side of oil recovery: the new jobs that will be created in Poole and the surrounding areas and the new orders for local firms. Recently, we have heard that BP, having no use for the large house on Furzey island, is prepared to make it available for the use of the local community. A number of local people will investigate ways in which it can be made available for such use without cost to the local community.

Dorset county council had asked the Department of Energy to allocate the two offshore licence blocks in Poole bay to BP because it felt that it was sensible that those two blocks should be dealt with as an extension of the Wytch farm development. I am pleased to say that the Minister has agreed to the county council's request. A certain sense of relief is felt when one deals with people one knows about such matters, particularly when they have shown that they understand the local environmental problems.

The recovery of oil is in the national interest, but that does not mean that there are no legitimate local interests, too. We in Dorset are not complacent about the discovery of oil. We know that the price for the successful recovery of oil without damage to the environment is the exercise of constant vigilance. We shall certainly exercise that vigilance. We are sure that both the Government and the oil companies will similarly recognise their responsibilities.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Baker Mr Nicholas Baker , North Dorset 10:18 pm, 12th June 1985

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) on raising this matter, which is critical to Dorset and to the south of England. We fully recognise the need to encourage development of the economy and the creation of new jobs and to allow new small industries to tuck into villages and towns to replace the jobs that agriculture can no longer provide. There are limits to the positive efforts that can be made to encourage development in areas that are economically declining, but Ministers can do some things to assist the economically declining areas and to deal with the environmental crisis which my hon. Friend described.

First, local planning decisions, especially those limiting development, should be overturned only in the most exceptional circumstances. The overturning of such decisions creates a decline in morale among councillors and in planning departments, which leads many of them to believe that planning power has been taken out of their hands. Secondly, we should achieve a greater adherence to structure plans by keeping development within the limits laid down in those plans. The rate of growth already provided for in the south-east Dorset structure plan is far below the present rate of population and development in the area. My hon. Friend referred to the Dorset county monitoring report, which produces some frightening figures.

Thirdly, we must protect the environment. The pressures on agricultural land and its disappearance, which I described in my Adjournment debate on 1 July 1981, have become worse in the intervening years. The pressures on farmers, nature and wildlife have also increased. That does not happen without the decision of man. It is the result of planning decisions taken by Governments and local authorities.

Fourthly, a declared policy of favouring development in the north of the country—in counties which are keen to increase housing and industrial development—would have considerable appeal and would be highly relevant to the divisions in the country today. It could be an attractive policy that would help to generate jobs in areas which need them, perhaps even more than Dorset needs them.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take the matter seriously, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for having raised it.

Photo of Mr Neil Macfarlane Mr Neil Macfarlane , Sutton and Cheam 10:21 pm, 12th June 1985

Many people will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) for introducing this important debate, and to my hon. Friends the Members for Poole (Mr. Ward) and for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker). The subject is clearly of great importance to their constituents, and that is why they have expressed their views forcefully on several occasions in the House, and also to my Department. Obviously, I shall not be able to cover every subject that has been raised, but I shall ensure that my hon. Friends receive replies to the important issues that they raised, including road improvement schemes, inadequate roads and the oil and gas industry. However, I wish to deal with the broader strategy in which we are involved. The whole of south-east Dorset has considerable appeal as an area in which to live and work and to spend one's leisure. That general attraction is a reflection not only of the area's inherent qualities but of confidence in the future. My hon. Friend's anxiety — it is a concern of the Government, too—is that planning should respond to the challenges that growth poses in the most suitable way.

The local responsibility for planning lies with the county council and the district councils. Those authorities are aware of local conditions and can best take account of local opinion. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State becomes involved whenever the structure plan is altered, when appeals are made following the refusal of planning permission or the imposition of conditions, or when he decides that, in the case of any development, he rather than the local planning authority should make the decision.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch mentioned the fact that local authorities are worried that their decisions are too frequently overturned on appeal. I am aware of some, but not all of the cases he has in mind. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on an appeal decision once it has been made. But if my hon. Friends would let me know of such cases that have caused concern to local authorities, I shall examine the circumstances, although I must emphasise that there can be no reappraisal of the decision. However, we should examine in detail some of the issues mentioned by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the major development that is proposed at Hum airport. I understand that an application for planning permission is with Christchurch borough council, and my hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot comment on the case. To do so could prejudice my right hon. Friend should the matter come before him for decision. Nor can I comment on any reports of negotiations that may be taking place between the prospective developer and any interested parties.

The Government's policy on development control is simple and clear. Planning permission should be granted unless there are sound planning reasons for refusal. I urge my hon. Friend to read the full text of my right hon. Friend's speech rather than what was reported in one of the major newspapers. However, the presumption must always be to allow development to take place unless it can be shown to be harmful, not the other way round.

Development represents economic activity — as my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North said—jobs and social benefits such as more and better housing. No unnecessary obstacles should be placed in its way, and the social and economic consequences of a refusal of planning permission must be borne in mind by those in the local planning authority who consider and decide planning applications and plan for their areas.

This policy does not mean haphazard growth, endless urban sprawl or unnecessary losses of countryside and agricultural land. This Government are firmly committed to the policies which conserve and protect green belt land and the countryside and which ensure that the bulk of development takes place within existing settlements, particularly inner city areas and on derelict land. Our planning circulars, which planning authorities must take into account in operating the planning system, have all laid particular stress on this commitment.

In many cases a difficult balance has to be struck between the benefits of development, including to the community at large, and the need to ensure that it takes place in the right places. In some areas there must be a presumption against most development, if the planning system is to serve its prime purpose of securing efficient use of land while ensuring that development may take place. It has to reconcile competing pressures, but it must cater for economic and social progress. No one can afford to prohibit change. That is a recipe for stagnation and decline, and a negative approach will not serve anyone's interests in the long run.

For our part, we have taken concerted steps to encourage new development to look to the inner cities and to the areas of the country where the competing pressures are less, and the social need greater. The urban programme, derelict land grant and land registers, enterprise zones, the urban development corperations in Liverpool and London, and our proposals for simplified planning zones are all positive measures, helping to secure the economic resuscitation and greater prosperity of the areas in great need of new growth and development. We have increased the allocation for derelict land grant in England from £235 million in 1979–80 to £76·4 million in 1985-86, and the allocation for the urban programme increased from £93 million to just under £340 million over the same period. Of the 17 enterprise zones that we have established in England, 15 are in the north and midlands.

Photo of Mr Robert Adley Mr Robert Adley , Christchurch

Does my hon. Friend accept the proposition that he would encourage development in the north by discouraging development in the south?

Photo of Mr Neil Macfarlane Mr Neil Macfarlane , Sutton and Cheam

That requires a fairly detailed response which the constraints on time would not allow, but I am more than happy to discuss that more fully with my hon. Friend. He, like me, would support the principles of market forces and the market place, and would agree that encouragement and discouragement are essentially for the planning authorities. However, the Government must create the right conditions, and that is why we have spent a great deal of taxpayers' money to try to ensure that there is an effective balance between north and south. It takes time to put that right.

Our planning circulars on land for housing, on industrial development, and on development plans have urged authorities to ensure that sufficient land is available in the right places to enable development to take place without any unnecessary encroachment on the countryside. But the vitality of the economy, both local and national, depends on new development. We must all, therefore, ensure that planning decisions help, not hinder, growth and enable development to take place in a way that brings the best possible balance of advantage to the private and public interests at stake in each case.

My hon:

. Friend has spoken about the growth of south-east Dorset, and the facts are not in dispute. Between 1971 and 1981 the usually resident population increased by 7·7 per cent., and Wimborne and Poole districts grew at a particularly fast rate. There is no evidence that this growth is slowing down; indeed it is possible that migration into south-east Dorset has increased.

This growth of population clearly creates a demand for houses, but it would not be right to assume that all of the demand stems from newcomers. There is a universal and long-established trend for new households to need separate accommodation. Although the average household size in south-east Dorset is already low, there is nevertheless a continuing demand from this source.

Housing completions in south-east Dorset have been greater than expected within the structure plan. The plan proposed that about 35,000 dwellings would be provided between 1976 and 1996, of which between 20,400 and 26,500 were to be on large sites and 10,500 were expected to be built on small sites, The latest monitoring information shows that at the end of March 1984 some 25,100 dwellings had been completed. This high number of completions has not been because of any disregard of the plan. Development of the large sites identified by the structure plan has proceeded more or less as expected

In contrast, many more houses have been built on small sites within the urban areas than the plan assumed. In principle, this kind of development is to be welcomed because it helps to reduce the loss of open countryside.

This growth reflects the needs of industry and banking and insurance services to move into the area. Bournemouth and Poole have successfully attracted new offices. Of recent moves, it is heartening to hear of the relocation to Poole of National Mutual Life of Australasia and the intention of Chase Manhattan bank to bring the major part of its headquarters to a new campus site at Bournemouth. The port of Poole has greatly increased its trade and the completion of the second roll-on/roll-off ferry terminal should be a further boost to its growth. These are encouraging developments and show that the economy of the area has vitality. They are important for job creation, which I am sure my hon. Friends will agree is necessary—

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, mr. speaker adjourned the House without Ques/tion put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.