I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the subject of the green belt in Hertfordshire. I am particularly pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister is responding to the debate, as I know, from first-hand experience, that his commitment to the green belt and preserving our green and pleasant land is unsurpassed. In particular, I welcome the opportunity to bring to his attention the concern of my constituents about the need to preserve our green belt and to give him an opportunity to allay a few of the fears raised by misreporting in the media of recent statements on the rural economy.
When I made my maiden speech, I said that the one thing that united the inhabitants of the various settlements in my constituency was a desire to remain separated from each other and from London by the green belt. St. Albans is the first distinct and distinctive city out of London. It is also the most beautiful. The centre of St. Albans is built on a hill and from there one can see—to the north, the west, the east and the south—green land and trees. Indeed, the green belt penetrates to the centre of the city, where the old Verulamium site was, and up to the abbey.
We maintain our character because of the green belt regulations. In 1958, the first proper green belt was established in Hertfordshire and covered a swathe of land to the south of Hemel Hempstead, St. Albans and Hertford. In 1976, that green belt was extended to encompass the whole of St. Albans, Harpenden, Redbourn and Sandridge. Since then, virtually all the land that has not been built upon and is not urbanised has been green belt land. In Hertfordshire as a whole, about 234 square miles, which is about 37 per cent. of the county, is accounted for by green belt land.
The green belt regulations, despite some fears and doubts, have been vigorously upheld in my area. We have lost land to the M25, but the last major loss of land for housing in my constituency was in Jersey farm, and that was not technically classified as green belt land before it was released for building. I understand from Mr. Briscoe, of Hertfordshire county council, to whom I am indebted, that no major appeals on green belt land have been won by developers since then, and that was over a decade ago.
In my district, out of literally scores of appeals, through which Mr. Kenworthy, deputy director of planning was kind enough to search, involving applications to develop the green belt land in St. Albans, only one significant decision went in favour of the developers. That was not in my constituency, although it was in the district of St. Albans. The scores of other appeals were all turned down, and the green belt has been preserved.
I was particularly pleased that the first decision made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, of which I was aware, was to reject an inspector's recommendation for development of Napsbury lane site in the green belt in the south of my constituency. Had that been developed, we would have joined London Colney and effectively become a part of a concrete strip from St. Albans to Hyde park.
However, despite the Government's excellent record in maintaining the green belt, the pressures are intensifying. In recent years the electrification of the railway line has reduced travelling time to about 18 minutes from St. Albans to St. Pancras. We have had an extra lane on the M1, and we had the junction of the M25 and the M1. All these changes make St. Albans a very attractive place to live. When I hear people talking about the Government's failure to invest in the infrastructure, I can only believe that they ignore the evidence of their eyes.
As a result, St. Albans is something of a boom town, having excellent location and great beauty. The most immediate threat to it is what the press call the application to develop the "golden triangle". My hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) has rightly insisted that we call this the "green triangle". The site is in his constituency, although it is in the district of St. Albans. My hon. Friend has successfully led the battle at every stage against that threat, particularly in persuading the Department of Transport to reword the very misleading advertisement put out in its name by its agents which suggested that this site was ripe for development and that there might be Government approval for it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Watford succeeded in making it absolutely clear that there was no Government presumption in favour of development of this site. My hon. Friend's position, which I fully endorse, is that this Government believe in the sanctity of the green belt. That springs from our philosophy as a Conservative party committed to conserving all that is best. It is enshrined in the circulars which have been issued by successive Secretaries of State and which have statutory backing.
The original circular, which is reaffirmed by subsequent circulars, made clear the purposes of green belts. They are threefold:
(a) to check the further growth of a large built-up area;
That is most important from my point of view and that of my constituents.
(b) to prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another;
(c) to preserve the special character of a town.
That also applies particularly to St. Albans.
Those original circulars have been reinforced by the Secretary of State's specific reference to the M25 when he wrote to SERPLAN about it before it was complete. He said:
The general presumption against development in the green belt is not affected by the M25, and there should continue to be the strongest restraint on development there. The improved access which the motorway provides will enhance the recreational value of the Green Belt.
He went on to say:
The emphasis should be on better use of existing urban land, redevelopment and the return to use of neglected sites, rather than the allocation of new land for development.
So we are protected from the exceptional pressures which the M25 will bring to bear. My hon. Friend the Minister himself spelled out the incompatibility with green belt policy of many projects for building large new retail developments in the green belt. I welcome his comments. He told the Confederation of British Industry conference:
it is difficult to see why major developers and institutional investors should be advancing giant speculative projects for shopping and leisure complexes outside towns that fly full in the face of long established green belt policy—a policy to which this Government is fully committed.
The Minister also said:
I would say that the promoters of some of the wilder schemes have no reason to think they will succeed in breaching green belt policy…It could well be considered irresponsible to attempt to launch these proposals that run
completely counter to established policy. Those Who pursue them to the point of appeal may find that they have the costs of any inquiry awarded against them.
We are confident that the golden triangle application which has just gone to appeal this week will in due course be rejected. We are saddened that the appeal will not be heard until February 1988, but I appreciate that my hon. Friend, in responding to this debate, will not be able to pre-empt any decision on that case and will be able only to comment generally because of the possible legal involvement of himself and the Secretary of State.
There is concern locally that even if my right hon. Friend does, as we are confident that he will at the end of the day, reject any application to develop on this site, we shall face repeated applications from developers putting in slightly altered plans. Local councils will incur heavy burdens of costs in refuting them, and the uncertainty will persist. I welcome my hon. Friend's latest circular entitled "Award of Costs Incurred in Planning Proceedings". The sanction of awarding costs against developers who make repeated appeals will act as a potent deterrent to that practice.
Despite the Government's impeccable track record, forces have been aroused by the media reports—or misreports—of the Government's statement on the rural economy. I understand that this simply upgrades the importance of environmental considerations to the very extent that it downgrades agricultural considerations. But I would be grateful, as would my constituents, if the Minister would reaffirm the Government's position in those related matters for the benefit of all of us. I know that other hon. Members from Hertfordshire are here today and would like to reaffirm our commitment to the green belt, which is an intrinsic part of the environment in our county.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Lilley) for having initiated this debate. If I come, like a green belt, between my hon. Friend and the Minister, it is because my hon. Friend has been such an articulate and powerful spokesman for the green belt in the St. Albans area, and the Minister has been quite the most sensitive and environmentally minded Minister we have had in the Department of the Environment since it was created. That is a happy background against which to consider this most important topic of the green belt, particularly in Hertfordshire.
My constituency meets the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans more or less at the junction of the M1 and M25 motorways. My area therefore suffers very much from the same pressures as his. The constant pressure from loony Left-wing boroughs in London is driving out their residents to come and seek peace and prosperity in the fields of west Hertfordshire. That is very desirable for those residents but it adds to pressure on housing and business land in our areas.
One of the difficulties is that the gaps that exist between the various communities are very narrow. The gap between Hemel Hempstead and Abbots Langley on the south-east side, in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members of Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page) and for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) is only about half a mile wide. The gap between Hemel Hempstead and the Berkhamsted-Potten End community on the western side of Hemel Hempstead is less than a mile wide. The gap between Hemel Hempstead and Redbourn, in the constituency of St. Albans, is even narrower.
If one accepts the principle, as seems to be the case in successive structure plans in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, that there should be growth around the edges of the freestanding towns in the green belt, one does not need much imagination to realise precisely what will happen in the end if we do not rigidly maintain our green belt boundaries. I am also concerned that, despite the excellent intentions of my hon. Friend in looking again at agricultural policy in the environmental context, this may lead to some weakening of the planning background in areas not covered by the green belt but still within the pressured areas of Hertfordshire.
There are areas within my constituency of Hertfordshire, West and within the constituency of nny hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans which do not fall within the Green Belt. Some areas are of outstanding natural beauty but other areas do not fall into either of those categories. It is to those areas that the pressure will be most directed. Therefore, my hon. Friend must be clear about the importance of maintaining rural local authority policies on the environment wholly separate from those on the green belt.
Does my hon. Friend consider the designation of an area of outstanding natural beauty to be as strong a designation as the green belt? In some of our agricultural areas we shall have to fall back on that if we are to ensure that development does not take place. In that context I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the present terms of reference of the Countryside Commission. They mean that the commission must look at the area of outstanding natural beauty, in our area the Chilterns, on a strictly hill contour basis, rather than also incorporating the vistas of those hills which come from the open land around them. The whole concept of areas of outstanding natural beauty should be extended so that the agricultural land surrounding them is considered in the same planning vein.
I must emphasise the point that my hon. Friend made about costs. The Environment Select Committee of which I was a member reported on the green belt and land for housing at the beginning of this Parliament. It made recommendations about costs and all members of the Select Committee were grateful to the Department for taking them on board so promptly. We have yet to see evidence of how that works in practice. In my area we have had a series of planning applications by developers for land adjacent to Grove road, Station road and Bulbourne road in Tring. In common with the experiences of my hon. Friend, all those applications were rejected on appeal by the Secretary of State. That underlines the fact that the Government have been particularly careful about preserving the green belt.
However, it has now reached the stage where local authorities find the burden of presenting their case and individual objectors find the burden of repeating their arguments and remarshalling their forces every time so considerable that punitive costs should be awarded when there have been several try-ons for the same site. Without referring to the particular sites, because that would be wrong, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassert his determination to use the costs machinery to deter developers from constantly submitting planning applications for areas which clearly are integral parts of the green belt and important for the preservation of the environment.
The issue of the green belt and future development, alone among the non-social issues on the political agenda, is close to the hearts of my constituents. Those who feel strongest about it are often those living in the centres of the towns or those who have come from the inner cities. They are not necessarily those who live on the edge of the countryside. The green belt acts as an important area for leisure and recreation and as a green lung. Therefore, I welcome the Minister's constant reassertion of the value attached to the political and planning concept of the green belt. That has been one of the great successes of our planning system since the 1947 legislations.
I fully understand my hon. Friend's anxiety to preserve the environment, which I share because there is a national park in the High Peak; clearly, it is a major interest of mine. In the north, unemployment is much higher than in the south and when constituents find even a well-paid job in the south, they find it extremely difficult to meet the housing costs and find that there is no rented accommodation. Does he agree that we must do what the Government are planning and both pick some areas which are not particularly environmentally sensitive and allow housing to be built there and do something about the Rent Acts? Will my hon. Friend comment on that balance that we need to strike?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but we should not widen this into a general debate about housing policy. On his narrow point about building houses on bits of the green belt to deal with the problem—
Order. If the hon. Gentleman pursues that point, I hope that he will pursue the question of building houses on the green belt in Hertfordshire, which is the subject of the debate.
Indeed, to be specific, no matter how many houses are built in St. Albans and West Hertfordshire, they will all sell at high prices, so that is no solution to the problem. The real solution lies in many of the points that my hon. Friend touched on, especially the extra objective that was added to green belt policy by the Government, again in response to the environment Select Committee's report, which was to reinforce the redevelopment of the inner cities by using strategic green-belt policy.
This is a most important subject and we are fortunate to have this debate tonight. When my hon. Friend the Minister replies, I hope that he can once again reassure us of his determination to preserve the green belt.
I am honoured to follow my hon. Friends the Members for St. Albans (Mr. Lilley) and for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) in this debate on the green belt in Hertfordshire.
The House will know that I have experience as a county councillor and that Hertfordshire played an important part in determining the structure plans which were the responsibility of county councils. At that time I lived in Cambridgeshire and watched with considerable interest how Hertfordshire dealt with its structure plan provision and organised its housing and industry planning, particularly its green belt. I had the pleasure to visit that county to see the provision it was making in its structure plan for the green belt so that we in Cambridgeshire could learn from its experience when we made structure plan provisions. That experience has subsequently been of benefit to my home county of Norfolk.
It has been interesting to see how over the years Hertfordshire has dealt with the sensitive problem of retaining the environment, which everyone wants to retain, and met housing pressures. It has also built roadways through Hertfordshire to improve its road communications. I have seen pressures build up in Norfolk which Hertfordshire experienced 10 years ago and I hope that from watching the Hertfordshire experience, I have been able to contribute to preserving the green belt in Norfolk.
Whether we talk about Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire or Norfolk, we are all dedicated to retaining the green belt around many of our fine cities. Norwich has a reputation as a fine city. Indeed, it says so on all the signs leading into the city. One cannot retain a fine city—such as St. Albans in Hertfordshire—if the green belt is destroyed by over-development, by over-industrialised development and encroachment on good agricultural land. It is right that the Government should be vitally concerned and they have appointed a Minister with responsibility for the environment. I remind the House that my right hon. Friend the Minister is piloting through the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Bill to improve the environment as part of the green belt which we have experience of in Hertfordshire.
I could not let the occasion pass without emphasising my considerable concern—
I did not intend to wake up Labour Members, but I wondered whether my hon. Friend had any thoughts on the problem of farming, which is important in Hertfordshire, as it is in my constituency, particularly when we have surplus production in Europe. What should we do with the land that farmers will no longer be using to produce butter and beef mountains and wine lakes? Does that fit in with my hon. Friend's plans?
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, with some validity, but I do not want to trespass on the constituencies of my hon. Friends from Norfolk, which in the main are farming constituencies. My constituency of Norwich is not a farming constituency, and thus I would be trespassing on other people's territory were I to follow that line of thought.
I conclude by supporting the remarks that my two hon. Friends from Hertfordshire have made, and I look forward to the response from the Minister.
This is the second debate in two days on this important subject. However, this debate has a considerable advantage over the one that I answered yesterday because on this occasion I have a full two hours for the reply, which will allow me to cover the matter in the necessary detail. My hon. Friends have given me this opportunity because they want me to go into the matter in some depth.
We have had some powerful contributions to the debate. I have never seen anyone sacrifice the rules of geography to the rules of order more skilfully than my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley), who appeared to locate the Norfolk Broads—temporarily, for the purposes of the debate—in Hertfordshire. My hon. Friend kept in order and kept his eye closely on you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. His point was well taken that, although there is no green belt immediately round the Norfolk Broads and no geographical relationship with the Norfolk Broads—which is so ably represented, in part, by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder), who is on the Front Bench—the issues there are very much the same. There is the Government's commitment to the conservation of our incomparable heritage in the countryside and in its natural beauty.
The gently dissident voice of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Hawkins) rightly reminded us of a good phrase used by my right hon. Friend now the Secretary of State for Education in the context of green belt. He said, "Green belt not green museums." We must not turn the villages and small towns, even of our green belts, into colonial Williamsburgs, to be looked at by the tourists pouring out of charabancs. That is not in our best interests. We want living communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) referred to the important circular that we put out last year and the advice that we repeated in the recent circular that, for example, redundant farm buildings should be sympathetically redesigned for the kind of local employment needs which there may often be, even in green belt. It is better to have those buildings properly re-used than have them lying derelict as eyesores and dumping grounds.
Does my hon. Friend agree that redundant farm buildings present the same opportunity for small businesses today that the old Nissen huts presented small businesses that started up after the war? Not only is that helpful on the fringe, it is the seed-bed of much of our future economic growth.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. In my urban constituency an important role is played by small businesses under the viaducts and railway arches, such as one sees near Waterloo station, where often small firms have started off and gone on to greater things.
My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Lilley) paid a fine and moving tribute to that beautiful city. I have just re-read—as it is necessary to do occasionally to reinforce one's views about lawyers—"Bleak House", which takes place in and around St. Albans and ends in a dramatic chase on foot from London to St. Albans and back. People were tougher in those days. That book reminds us, as my hon. Friend did, of the contiguity of St. Albans to the great urban centre, and therefore the importance of ensuring that fine city is protected by a proper green belt. It could so easily have become swamped in urban sprawl, in a way that is essential it should not.
My hon. Friend paid tribute to the stalwart defence of that green belt that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his predecessors have undertaken. My hon. Friend referred to the Napsbury lane site application, which we turned down. He then referred to one of the issues which is coming up, and he fairly absolved me from any duty to comment on it tonight. However, whether it is a green triangle or a golden triangle, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) has made certain that no Secretary of State will be other than well aware of the importance of any proposed development in that area through the green belt.
At the instance of the local authority, that inquiry has been referred, but that inquiry will and must be extremely thorough. My hon. Friends the Ministers for St. Albans and for Hertfordshire, West referred to the M25 being built and the fact that it was said at the time that the M25 was not to be used as a Trojan horse for development all around London. That will be one of the material considerations of the inquiry. My hon. Friend the Member for Watford, and those whom he represents, will be giving evidence to that inquiry in due course.
I welcome the debate tonight because it gives me another opportunity—which is necessary when things are being misinterpreted—to hammer at the truth until it is understood. I can explain once again what we are doing with the change to the agricultural dimension of rural planning and, perhaps even more important. what we are not doing. What we are not saying—here I have to disappoint housebuilders and some of the landowners—is that the countryside is up for grabs; that we are not interested in green land, because the only protection for green land is its use as agricultural land.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) was a distinguished councillor and adviser to the Association of District Councils at one time. He knows as well as I do that the planning system is the basic protection. Our circular said that in today's world, where we are living with surpluses in many commodities and where the taxpayer and consumer are having to pay for those surpluses, it is irrational if we say that we do not need development, to steer that development away from the best agricultural land on to the worst agricultural land—overriding the ordinary considerations of development versus environment, which in agricultural areas will have agriculture as an important local industry and one of the material considerations in any decision on development versus non-development.
In many cases, particularly in cases where there has been efficient and high-productivity farming, the remaining unimproved land is often of great environmental and ecological interest. If there is a nice flat field which has been in cereals or rye grass for 20 years—and will, sadly, have lost any ecological interest—we should not be steering the development away from that on to the undrained water meadow where the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service man may, in the old days, have said, "What you need here is a drainage grant to make this grow more cereal surpluses".
That is all that the circular says and no more. Now we must look at development versus environment head on. The environmental notations in the local plans are as strong as ever they were. It is important to maintain the countryside. If there is, as there sometimes will be, environmentally satisfactory land use other than farming, we must not steer away from it in order to protect an agricultural output that we do not need.
The previous debate that I answered was about a golf course, and I was interested recently to see work by the London Wildlife Trust showing that many golf courses round London also manage very well as wildlife centres. It is possible to imagine that, even in the green belt, land can be used for recreation or other purposes which may make farming impossible but be environmentally satisfactory. We have what could be an attractive opportunity to bring a little more income into the countryside and make more room for carefully managed recreation if it fits environmentally. We should not miss that opportunity simply because of an outdated overriding imperative about agricultural production. That is what we were saying—no more and no less.
I greatly welcome much of what my hon. Friend says. Although I may appear to be pressing for building to some extent, I strongly agree with protecting the environment. However, in the past I have had cases of the barn, as the Minister mentioned, that could be converted into a nice home, and so on, for which the planning application has been turned down. Will the appeals procedure be changed to reflect the new approach? I have had cases of triangular pieces of farming land, too small for dairy farming and too near a town for sheep because of the dog problem, which have gone through the whole planning gamut but have got nowhere. Unless we change the appeals system, what my hon. Friend the Minister is saying will not happen.
My hon. Friend raises the problem of another of the important environmental notations—the special protection given in national parks, in one of which his constituency lies. I know that on occasion he has had reason to criticise the High Peak national park. The issues there, when one is trying to manage land surrounded by enormous pressures of population, are a little different even from green belt land. I am not saying that every decision has been right in the past. We must be sensitive to keeping the communities there alive, too, but that is a slightly more specialist subject than the ordinary management of green belt. However, I take my hon. Friend's point, and it is vital that there should be real jobs and real communities in the national parks. If we stray too far into the national park debate I may be rebuked by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall not continue down that line.
I see that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry is anxious to pursue his own debate so I shall make two more swift points. If I continue at length he may become disgruntled.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) made an important point about structure planning that has lain behind some of the anxieties that have been expressed in recent weeks about our commitment to green belt and wider countryside protection. Our discussion paper says that in future we shall go for single tier plans run by the district councils, by the development control authorities. Some people have asked what will happen to, for example, the protection of green belt. Until now general policies have been set out in structure plans. Let me make it clear once again, as I made it clear to the Council for the Protection of Rural England last week, that we have no intention of surrendering the proper strategic planning on top of the unitary plans. That will still be done by counties, or perhaps by consortia of counties, and will be built into the district plans which the districts will hold.
However, we cannot put up with the way in which structure plans have now become immensely complicated. One famous case contained 252 so-called policies, which is nonsense. Planning of that detail should be done by the district. However, there is a proper place for strategic guidance and strategic planning which will still come from county planners or a consortia of counties, as happens in the SERPLAN area of East Anglia, but they must then be built in and have their statutory course from the district unitary plans. I hope that we can set that red herring at rest—if that is what one does to a red herring.
The conservation of the green belt rests, as both my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans and for Hertfordshire, West said on getting the other side of the equation right—that is, the re-use of the brown land, land which has been used before and can be used again. That is vital. It is encouraging that since I have been in the Department of the Environment much more housing is being built on re-used land than we ever believed would be the case in the past.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) is not here—indeed, no member of the Labour party is here, nor of the Liberal party—but he made a speech which disturbs me greatly. Perhaps I should not say this because I know that it will make him cross. It would have been a rather courageous speech in the sense that it turned policy upside down. It was made to the National House Building Council, so it may have been a popular speech at the time. The hon. Gentleman said that we were over-exaggerating the possibilities of building on brown land and it was probably right to extend building into green areas and even into green belt.
I was deeply disturbed by that. That seemed to me to show the beginnings of a commitment by the Labour party to move away from proper countryside protection and, above all, to move away from the pressure to re-use land which we have been succeeding in getting. If we let the housebuilders think that those pressures will come on, they will go back to the old business of trying to apply for the earlier sites again and again, whatever we do about costs—although we can do something about that. I greatly regret that speech.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend as I had intended to do earlier, on his decision over Tillingham hall. It brought great relief not just in Essex but in Hertfordshire as well that the Government clearly will not allow massive or major new developments in green belt land, but are ensuring that it will occur in the already urbanised land.
Order. I have been tolerant, but the debate is about Hertfordshire and we must not develop it into a general debate about the green belt. Many hon. Members, had they been aware that such a debate was contemplated, may have wished to take part. The House is debating the green belt in Hertfordshire.
That was an extremely wise decision, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Many more Conservative Members would have wanted to take part if the debate had been wider. I do not know whether any Labour Members would have wanted to do so. Tillingham hall is not in Hertfordshire, but it is fair to say that the clarity of the decision, which rests four square on green belt criteria, should be of consolation and encouragement to those defending the green belt in Hertfordshire. They would be defending it in the Norfolk Broads if there was any there.
I am grateful to my hon. Friends for giving us the opportunity once again to reaffirm our commitment. It is particularly satisfactory to have a debate introduced by what I think, without flattering him, I can call one of our principal free market philosophers. He wrote with Sam Brittan a book which has been a text book for many of us. If he is willing to endorse the necessary constraints to a market, as there must be necessary constraints to markets, in certain social and planning activities, it gives us all great hope that the commitment to green belt ranges throughout the Conservative party. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving us the opportunity to endorse it.