Mr. Deputy Speaker, with my agreement and that of my hon. Friend the Minister, my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart) and for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) hope to catch your eye during the debate. I see also that my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson), who I know is particularly interested in this subject, is present, as is my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen).
The debate concerns the green belt and its necessary preservation. Fifty years ago, something happened which changed the lives and the environment of Londoners and provided us with a constant blessing. The London and Home Counties (Green Belt) Act 1938 was passed to protect and preserve the swathe of green land then surrounding London. From that time onwards, the urban sprawl was halted; the concrete jungle ceased to encroach on the English countryside. A simple proposition—a presumption against planning consent for urban and residential development—has sufficed to preserve London's green lungs for half a century.
The green belt is not sacrosanct, and there have been exceptions to the general rule. Some development, consistent with the overall policy, has been allowed. There is scope for developments serving agricultural and recreational needs that retain the green fields and enable the city dweller more fully to enjoy his natural heritage.
There is, however, constant pressure on local planning authorities in the south-east to make more land available for development and to meet the increasing demand for housing. The very attractiveness of areas such as my own, on the edge of the green belt, has increased the demand and forced up the value of existing sites or added to the pressure for infilling or backfilling, to the detriment of the local environment. Local authorities are continually urged by their residents to resist higher densities, and they try to do so, but they constantly lose cases on appeal to the Secretary of State who—all too often contrary to an approved local strategic development plan—allows higher densities and lower standards. If I have one criticism of my right hon. Friend it is that too often he appears to want to deregulate our planning controls. Deregulation is a good policy in certain fields of activity but it cannot and must not apply to planning law.
If housing in established residential areas is growing increasingly more expensive, the landowner and farmer who owns land in the green belt on the fringe of London sees himself as living on a gold mine with nothing but the green belt policy separating him from a huge fortune. There is a lot of money to be made from getting planning consent for development in the green belt, but the public and the public interest demand that the policy be maintained.
The green fields between urban London and the M25 motorway are precious to Londoners. They serve the ecological, social and economic needs of London and it would be an act of ministerial vandalism to destroy them by allowing them to be used for commercial or urban development. If the developers want to satisfy the increasing demand for housing and office premises, we should insist that they build in the existing urban areas and the inner city and not on green field sites.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the land register already shows 100,000 acres of land in public ownership which is vacant, dormant, derelict or underutilised and which is still not being used for housebuilding? Although the Government are committed to getting rid of public vacant land, the speed at which they are doing so is such that it will not be until the year 2500 that the land will be properly used. Does my hon. Friend agree that public vacant land is one of the major problems that are causing developers to go into the green fields and into the green belt? They are not using the land that is going to waste.
That is an astonishing fact and I hope that the Government will turn potential developers' eyes towards land that is available to them and away from green field sites.
In 1986 a farmer in my constituency who owns some 500 acres of good farming land abutting on the M25 joined forces with the Prudential corporation and put in an application for planning consent to develop his land on a scale that takes one's breath away. He proposes a huge shopping and commercial complex covering 1,700,000 sq ft of floor space with parking for 6,000 cars. The catchment area on which it will draw is expected to include places within 30 minutes' driving time, which would cover more than 2 million people. The effect would be to draw on people as far away from Orpington as Rochester, Maidstone, Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, Greenwich, Bexley and Lewisham.
The effect on local shopping centres, trade, firms and businesses in my constituency and those of my hon. Friends in the London borough of Bromley would be devastating. The proposed floor space is one and a third times greater than the entire floor space of all the shopping facilities in Orpington. The traffic generation would be enormous. At peak times it would involve 30,000 to 60,000 movements in the Orpington area alone. With the addition of the service traffic required to supply such a massive development, the effect on the M25, which is already working to capacity, could be disastrous.
The planning authority, the London borough of Bromley, refused the application. It said that development in the green belt was inappropriate, damaging to its character and likely to lead to dangerous traffic congestion. The site is in an area, on the escarpment of the north downs, of outstanding natural beauty. It is covered by public footpaths which I, my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst, Councillor Dennis Barkway, the leader of the council, and almost 4,000 local residents traversed on foot last Monday, a public holiday, in protest at the plan. The impact on local shopping areas would be annihilating. Worst of all, approval for such a scheme would drive a coach and horses through the green belt policy.
The proposed developers have appealed. The hearing of the appeal will be on 21 June. Is it conceivable that such a scheme could be allowed to succeed? Do the Government contemplate abandoning the green belt policy? Surely not, and yet why should a huge multi-million pound corporation like the Prudential venture its capital and its reputation on a huge publicity campaign and immense legal costs if it did not expect to succeed?
My hon. Friend has made the point that, if permission were granted on appeal, it would drive a coach and horses through the present planning policy. Does he agree that we expect my hon. Friend the Minister to give a clear signal to the potential developers that this appeal is unlikely to succeed and that their efforts are wasted? I understand that the relevant Minister gave such a signal at an earlier stage.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Why should we all go through the agony of doubt, fear and suspicion that the appeal might be allowed if there is no question of its being allowed? I realise that my hon. Friend the Minister will say that the Secretary of State will be called upon to act in a judicial capacity, so we cannot expect her to pronounce on the merits of the case. If so, there must be a better way of stopping the waste of public money and of satisfying the very strong feeling of outrage, than suffering a long drawn-out process extending over two years before we get a rejection of an application which should never have been made in the first place.
I cannot contemplate the political consequences of the appeal being allowed. If it were allowed, the consequences for the Government would be devastating in the south-east. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make it plain that the Government stand by the green belt policy and will not allow London's heritage to be sacrificed to private greed.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) on the eloquent but restrained fashion in which he put the case for the people of Bromley against the proposed development at Hewitts farm in the green belt. I must admit that I have received one letter in support of the scheme—it was sent by the planning consultants, representing the Prudential Assurance Company. But I have received scores of letters from individual constituents opposing the scheme. Virtually every residents' association in the area has told me that it considers the scheme to he an outrage.
I realise that the Minister cannot pronounce on the merits of the case tonight, but I am encouraged by the fact that last year, in a restatement of Government policy, she said:
the Government have also made it clear that large retail stores simply do not belong in green belts. We have also made it clear that developers who pursue proposals for large scale retail developments in green belts to appeal and are unsuccessful may expect to have the costs of any inquiry awarded against them."—[Official Report, 24 July 1987; Vol. 120, c. 678.]
That seems to be an excellent statement. I hope that my hon. Friend will say again tonight that costs can be awarded against the developer. I hope that she will go further in the next few months. At the moment it is far too easy for developers to appeal against a decision by a local planning committee. They might become more selective in their appeals if they knew that they invariably had to pay
the costs of an appeal, whether successful or unsuccessful. Our only real defence against such incessant appeals is to make the appeal process more expensive for the developer.
In this short but important debate we clearly cannot properly discuss the general issue of appeal costs, but I am confident that the Minister will be sympathetic if I write to her later.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) for allowing me to contribute to the debate. The site to which he has referred lies in his constituency, but the issue that we are discussing has far wider implications.
The development proposed would affect many of the shopping centres within the borough. It would radically alter the entire rural environment in which my hon. Friend's constituents and mine live, and, of course, it would be completely contrary to the Government's green belt policy.
In reply to a question on 19 November 1986, the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave) said:
There is a general presumption against inappropriate development throughout the green belts".—[Official Report, 19 November 1986; Vol. 105, c. 242.]
That policy was reiterated by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary in a debate that I initiated in July 1937 and it has been spelt out subsequently in planning policy guideline documents issued at the beginning of this year. It was further confirmed in an exchange of correspondence which the Secretary of State had with my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) as recently as March.
If the Hewitts farm proposal were allowed it would be contrary to the wishes of the borough council, which has rejected it firmly; it would be contrary to the wishes of the people of the borough as represented by the 4,000 people who accompanied my hon. Friend and me and the leader of the council on our walk through the area that would be affected last Monday, and it would blow the Government's green belt policy to smithereens.
If the proposal were allowed, how could my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State possibly resist similar applications all round London? The result would be that London would rapidly become built up from Trafalgar square in all directions to the M25.
Yet we shall still be going through the procedure—a planning application is put in, it is rejected by the local authority, an appeal is lodged, a campaign is mounted, and there is a public inquiry accompanied by enormous anxiety at great expense. We have already spent 12 to 18 months on this issue. Why do we have to go through all this? My hon. Friend the Minister will tell us when she replies that the law requires that we should, just as she will tell us that because of the law she cannot comment on this case. That we understand, but the law does not have to require that we go through such a charade. We are in a position to alter the law. In the debate that I initiated on 24 July 1987, I urged the Government to take powers to designate certain parts of the green belt as inviolate for a period of years during which no planning applications would be entertained.
My hon. Friend the Minister pleaded that there would be practical difficulties in so doing. I have to tell her that I am not persuaded by those arguments. Agreeable as it is to spend a couple of hours on a bank holiday morning in the company of my hon. Friend and the leader of the council, walking through a pleasant country area, it should not be necessary for us to do that as a means of persuading the Government to carry out their own policy. I invite my hon. Friend to look again at a way of avoiding all this cost and distress by adopting my suggestion.
Meanwhile, the Hewitts farm proposal has provoked widespread reaction in the borough of Bromley, in the press, in correspondence, in speeches and in posters, some of it in language which I suspect would be ruled unparliamentary were I to repeat it.
I invite the Minister to tell the Secretary of State that when the inspector's report on the inquiry into the Hewitts farm application arrives on his desk, he should respond to it with the two letter word "No."
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) on his speech and my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart), for South Hams (Mr. Steen) and for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) on their contributions. I know that their concerns about the pressures for development and the future of the green belt are shared by many hon. Members, so I welcome this opportunity to set out, once again, the Government's policy and position.
The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington includes substantial stretches of green belt land. Having been a councillor in Bromley for three years, I have personal knowledge and experience of the area and continue to take a close interest in it. I can therefore well appreciate the great value that my hon. Friends, their constituents and visitors place on the countryside in and around the area. I am, of course, also aware that it is the very quality of this countryside, together with the general prosperity and fine residential developments in the area, that make the area so attractive to residents and developers alike.
I make no apologies for these intense pressures for development in my hon. Friends' constituencies and in other constituencies, particularly, but not exclusively, in the south-east. Those pressures are evidence of developers' increasing wish to invest in this country's new-found and continuing prosperity. Such investment is essential to sustain economic growth and to ensure the provision of jobs, houses, shops, leisure facilities and all the other services required by a growing population.
However understandable these pressures for development may be, we would be foolish and shortsighted to respond to them solely with economic objectives in mind. Such an approach would rapidly become self-defeating. It would cause irreparable harm to the countryside that we value so much. The Government remain fully committed to protecting that countryside.
Our policy therefore is, as it always has been, to meet the needs of development, while protecting and enhancing the environment. This is the essential aim of the town and country planning system, which this year celebrates the 40th anniversary of its implementation. The planning system has served the country well and continues to do so. We intend to retain it, while continuing to refine it to improve its performance and efficiency.
I accept that reconciling economic and environmental objectives is often a difficult task. It requires planning authorities, my Department's inspectors and the Secretary of State to reach judgments on finely balanced issues. My postbag shows that in planning it is impossible to reach decisions that please everyone, and I suspect many other hon. Members have similar experience.
It is the purpose of the planning system to regulate the development and use of land in the public interest, not to protect the private interests of one person or group against the activities of another. The question that faces every planning decision-maker is how far a proposed development would affect the locality generally and whether it would affect unacceptably amenities that should be protected in the public interest. The countryside, and in particular the green belt, rank highly among such amenities.
Normally, in the planning system, there is a presumption in favour of development unless it would cause demonstrable harm to interests of acknowledged importance. That is not the case in the green belt, however, where there is an explicit presumption against development except for a limited range of uses.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) suggested that we might go even further and declare parts of the green belt prohibited areas for all planning applications and development. This is an interesting idea, but it would not achieve its objective. Apart from the fundamental questions that the suggestion raises about the basic principles of the planning system, the practical difficulties of defining and identifying areas of extra specially protected green belt would distractingly shift the focus of debate, without necessarily addressing the underlying issues. Moreover, the creation of first-class green belt implies also the creation of second-class green belt with a somehow inferior degree of protection. Our policy is that all green belt is special and that, while all development proposals should be treated on their merits, the developments that are likely to have merit in the green belt are very severely limited.
The detailed policy on controlling development in the green belt, in line with the "presumption against", was first set out in its present form in 1955. We have recently restated it in planning policy guidance note 2. Incidentally, I hope that all hon. Members are aware of these excellent new digests of planning policy, which my Department introduced in January. The policy states that approval should not be given, except in very special circumstances, for the construction of new buildings, or for the change of use of existing buildings, other than for a very limited range of purposes. These purposes are agriculture and forestry, outdoor sport, cemeteries, institutions standing in extensive grounds, and other uses appropriate to a rural area. My hon. Friend will note that that list of purposes does not include major retail development.
The planning policy guidance note to which I have just referred sets out the five purposes of green belts. They are: to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas; to safeguard the surrounding countryside from further encroachment; to prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another; to preserve the special character of historic towns; and to assist in urban regeneration. The Government attach great importance to green belts. Since 1979 the area of approved green belt in England has more than doubled. The area of approved London green belt has increased from 760,000 acres to 1·2 million acres in the same period. There is no question of change in our policy.
We are robust in our defence of the green belt. A corollary of this is that the needs of development must be met elsewhere, again with due sensitivity to the environmental implications. We have a range of policies designed to encourage development in areas where it will be welcomed, particularly in the inner cities, but, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in March in his letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), it is simply not practicable to accommodate all development needs in this way. Some new land has to be allocated in the south-east, for housing and employment, with regard to where people wish to live and where businesses wish to locate.
We can, I think, claim a fair measure of success in accommodating those aims. Thus, while the south-east has maintained its share of new housebuilding, this has not encroached on London's green belt or on areas of outstanding natural beauty or other statutorily protected areas. Further, the evidence shows that more and more development is taking place on land that was derelict or was vacant land in urban areas. Work done for us by the Ordnance Survey shows that in the past two years or so about 46 per cent. of all new housing throughout the country has been on this type of land, and a survey by consultants has shown that in the south-east the figure was 55 per cent. The rate at which farmland has been taken for development has fallen dramatically in recent years, and in the last five years or so has been at its lowest since records began in the 1920s.
There is sometimes concern about the future of green belt sites which, although not built on or redundant, have deteriorated in quality and may no longer appear to warrant the description green belt. It is sometimes suggested that the improvement of such sites, and their restoration to truly green appearance, might be secured by the proceeds of allowing a small part of them to be developed for residential or commercial use. This is a dangerous path to follow and, while I must respect the doctrine of "each case on its merits", I should not wish to recommend it.
One of the primary purposes of green belts is to separate neighbouring towns by checking the spread of large built-up areas. This purpose can be achieved almost as well by gravel pits or other so-called scruffy parts of the green belt as by a landscape of pristine fields and woodlands. To accept otherwise is almost to encourage dereliction in the green belt in the hope that planning authorities will eventually concede that even development is preferable. However, I remind the House that it is an explicit part of green belt policy that detailed green belt boundaries should not be amended or development allowed merely because the land has deteriorated or become derelict. This is not to say that such land should not be improved, but it means that its deterioration cannot justify its development.
My hon. Friend is particularly concerned about major retail development. Our policy on major retail development in the green belt could hardly be clearer. It is most recently stated in paragraph 15 of planning policy guidance note 6, which states:
Proposals for major out-of-town retail development, which may be well over 100,000 sq ft and up to 1 million sq ft or more, have no place in the green belt, where there is a strong presumption against all inappropriate development. Nor are developments on that scale generally acceptable in the open countryside.
Short of taking statutory measures to prohibit major retail development in the green belt even being considered. I doubt whether we could emphasise our policy more strongly.
In case my hon. Friends are still not convinced, I repeat what my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning said at a conference organised by the CBI in October 1986. Speaking about the continuing flow of proposals for vast shopping and leisure complexes, he said:
It is difficult to see why major developers and institutional investors should be advancing these giant speculative projects that fly full in the face of long-established green belt policy —a policy to which this Government is fully committed. Any such proposal has, of course, to be considered on its merits and in the light of general policy. Some may come to me on appeal, so I must not name names. There is provision, as there must be, for exceptions to be made in very special circumstances. But by way of general policy I would say that the promoters of some of the wilder schemes have no reason to think that they will succeed in breaching green belt policy.
That was more than 18 months ago, but it remains a waste of time for local planning authorities, local objectors and, not least, my Department's planning inspectors, to have to deal with unrealistic proposals, whether for major retail development in the green belt or for other equally misconceived schemes. As Ministers have said before, those who pursue such schemes to the point of appeal may find that the costs of any inquiry are awarded against them. Whether appellants should bear all or part of the costs of inquiries, irrespective of their justification or outcome, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham suggested, is an interesting proposal, and I look forward to receiving his letter on the matter.
My hon. Friend will have noted that, so far, I have been conspicuously silent about the proposed development that was the principal subject of his speech. I am, of course, very familiar with the development proposals for the Hewitts farm site—even more so following my hon. Friend's description of them. I am also aware of the controversy that they have generated in the constituencies of my hon. Friend and his parliamentary neighbours. However, as my hon. Friend appreciates, I must keep my counsel since, as he said, the proposals are now the subject of a planning appeal currently before the Secretary of State. A number of other major retail schemes around London have reached or are approaching more or less the same stage in the planning process.
Although I cannot comment on the merits of the Hewitts farm proposals, I can confirm the arrangements for the public inquiry that the Secretary of State has ordered to help him to determine this appeal. The inquiry is scheduled to be held at the civic centre, Rochester avenue, Bromley and to start at 10 am on Tuesday 21 June.
In conclusion, I again thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue tonight. Green belt policy is one of the most successful and enduring components of the planning system and one which, I am sure, will continue to enjoy support from hon. Members on both sides of the House. As my hon. Friend said—