Orders of the Day — Green Field Sites (Development)

– in the House of Commons at 2:32 am on 27th July 1989.

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Photo of Mr Mark Wolfson Mr Mark Wolfson , Sevenoaks 2:32 am, 27th July 1989

However late and grey the hour, I welcome the opportunity to debate the continuing development on green field sites around towns and cities. In so doing, I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his expanded duties in the planning sector. He will need all his skills as a steersman, boxer and umpire in this arena, to which he is no stranger, and I wish him -well. I am pleased and relieved to see that other hon. Members have stayed the course and are present to debate this important subject, late though it is.

The issue is of vital concern to people all over Britain, but it is particularly acute in the south of England. A dominant London, a vigorous economy, rapidly developing job opportunities, attractive countryside and even a relatively benign climate combine to create an insatiable demand for new homes and other development in the countryside. That phenomenon is not new. Victorian and Edwardian suburbs bear witness to past demand. Ribbon development in the 1930s and the growth of boroughs such as Enfield, Bromley, Harrow and Woodford, and similar developments on the edge of other cities, show the strength of demand for homes built on green field sites in the years between the wars. They are a clear warning, as are many post-war developments, of how much acreage can be built on in one, two or three decades.

Our framework of planning law was established to balance the demand for more and better housing in an attractive environment with the need to preserve the countryside from the character of towns. Despite this framework, however, a frightening amount of green field land is still built on every year. As Mark Twain reminded us long ago, there is not an unlimited supply of i his commodity. He was speaking of America. In Britain it is even more clearly the case. Many hon. Members from a multiplicity of constituencies are worried by that, but we are not blind to the need for new and better housing, nor to the desire of families for an improved environment.

The debate is about two issues—how to limit the pace of green field development and at the same time finding other land for housing. With many of my colleagues, I contend that great opportunities still exist to use derelict and underused land within and on the edge of many of our towns and cities as land for housing and other developments. Far too many people are still condemned to live as neighbours to decay—closed factories, empty warehouses, defunct power stations, unused wharfs and shrunken mental hospitals. Those useless monuments to the changed industrial and social life of Britain make bad neighbours for those who live beside them. Vandalism and dereliction, dirt and decay ensure a rotten environment. They create hopelessness, undermine initiative and cause depression and gloom. Land and buildings unused and uncared for are not just an economic waste but a social cancer.

Much of such land is still in the hands of central and local government, nationalised industries and other public bodies such as the Health Service. Several factors militate against the use of this land, including little or no financial incentive to sell, management which lacks dynamism, public sector managers whose accountability is limited and often diffuse, inadequate entrepreneurial know-how and drive, and limited or non-existent knowledge of property development. In some cases, it is continuing political resistance from some local authorities.

Where those factors can be changed a dramatic and rapid alteration follows. London's dockland is the prime example. My right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) was the mover behind the London docklands development scheme and he deserves continuing credit for it. I hope that there will come a time when he is again in a position directly to influence the course of government to the benefit of many.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen), with expert advice from outside the House, has evolved public land use management schemes as one way to overcome the problems which too often stand in the way of selling public unused and underused land for housing and other purposes.

I have spoken of the social cancer that derelict land represents, and there is still far too much of it. Figures from the Department of the Environment show more than 17,000 acres of derelict land in England as owned by county and district councils, with a further 28,000 acres owned by other public bodies. That was 40 per cent. of the total listed as derelict land in public ownership.

Not all but much of that land could be used to meet housing demand and thus help to limit the need to provide more and more green field sites for developers. Where derelict land and other urban land is used for housing, it is vital that development schemes are comprehensive, responsive to the desires of individuals and provided with a satisfactory environment around them.

Local authority city housing schemes of the 1960s and 1970s were often a disaster because planners, architects and, I have to admit, politicians paid scant heed to the wishes, though they were articulated clearly enough, of the often reluctant residents. It has taken us 25 years to learn the lessons of tower blocks. Where houses have been built for sale, the consumer has always had a say. That opportunity for choice now has a better chance of occurring in the rented sector under the Government's new initiatives, but there is still a long way to go. If the rapid development of city and other urban land is to take place, and thus relieve the pressure on green field development, such action can be successful only if homes and the lived-in environment around them are attractive to the people. Britain has not been good at achieving attractive modern towns and cities. The challenge now and in the future is to make them better places in which to live.

I return to the subject of green field sites and Government policy on specific planning applications. Pressure from would-be developers is relentless, be it for warehousing, factories, offices, shopping centres or new towns. My purpose in initiating this debate—and many of my hon. Friends will share my view—is to make it clear to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, whose appointment I welcome, that there is growing concern about existing and potential overdevelopment in parts of Britain, particularly in the south. We want him to take full cognisance of our concern because it reflects that of many of our constituents and supporters, who look to the Government to balance the demand for homes against the need to protect the environment. They are not arguing like Luddites against all things new—they want planning law to be used to achieve a proper balance, and if it is inadequate for that purpose, it should be changed.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe , Kent Mid

Is my hon. Friend aware of the way in which what appears to be a certainty suddenly becomes an uncertainty? For example, there is a proposition to build on the edge of my constituency a parkway station in the middle of a gap which every local authority in the area had designated as a gap which should not be closed. Now we are all apprehensive lest once the station is built there will be no way of protecting the area, so that what was a complete certainty has suddenly become a total uncertainty.

Photo of Mr Mark Wolfson Mr Mark Wolfson , Sevenoaks

My hon. Friend reinforces my point, and no doubt other hon. Members will refer to specific changes.

Regional and county structure plans provide a framework for the control of growth. Land earmarked for future development is known, local authorities can make their dispositions accordingly, and local people know roughly where they stand. But the readiness of development groups to challenge existing guidelines—and to do so with blatant disregard for the stated views of Ministers, local authorities and communities—is setting the cat among the pigeons. An application to build a new town in Oxfordshire, to be known felicitously as Stone Bassett, is a prime example of that. Happily, that scheme has been thrown out. That scheme, which had no place in any county or district plan, was evolved between a development consortium and a local farmer. The cost in money, time, worry and stress to the small community that would have been engulfed by the scheme has been immense.

My constituents and I have benefited from a similar decision taken on an application for a major out-of-town shopping centre at Hewitts Farm close by the M25 in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook). There, too, developers had been repeatedly warned by Ministers that such an application was most unlikely to be successful because it fell outside all the relevant criteria. The developers nevertheless persisted but, I am glad to say, without success. That is the response that we look to the Secretary of State for the Environment to give in such cases—and not, as has happened over Foxley Wood, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley), to allow the application on appeal. My hon. Friend raised that issue in the House only this afternoon.

I end by asking the Minister to convey to the Secretary of State my request that as one of his first acts in his new job he should reconsider the Foxley Wood decision and overturn it. That would give a clear and definite signal that on the development of green field sites his tiller is hard over to green.

Photo of Sir Peter Emery Sir Peter Emery , Honiton 2:45 am, 27th July 1989

The late hour and the number of hon. Members who wish to take part in this debate emphasise the extreme importance that a number of senior hon. Members attach to planning and to the protection of the environment.

In your other role as Chairman of Ways and Means, I suggest that it might have been helpful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if the 10-minute rule on speeches had applied throughout these debates because we might thus have saved an hour and a half for other speeches or for time in which to bowl along through the other debates because many hon. Members have spoken for longer than 10 minutes. However, I shall attempt to hold to that time limit.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) should be congratulated immensely on bringing this matter to the House's attention. The fears that he has expressed are evident not only in the south-east and around London and all the main cities; but in many other parts of the country, not least in the south-west. I shall use east Devon and my constituency of Honiton as an illustration. It contains some of our most beautiful countryside, such as the deep coombs and valleys, the commons at Woodbury and the red cliffs along the coast from Lyme Regis to Exmouth. The ancient farmland, village life and the seashore make for an ideal constituency with more than its share of countryside of outstanding natural beauty.

The natural beauty of many parts of the country has been bequeathed to us by past generations and is something that we only borrow and use. We should protect it before handing it on—I hope unsullied and unspoiled—for the benefit of future generations.

The concrete jungle is spreading not only in our big cities and towns, but in many parts of our countryside. Once spread, it eats into the greenness of the countryside which can never be restored and that is something to which we should begin to pay considerable attention. The speed of the movement of the population around the country, and especially into the south-west, bears on this problem.

Having been a Member of the House for six years, I was defeated in 1966 and 330 days later came back in a by-election as the Member of Parliament for my present constituency. That was in 1967. My constituency then included part of the city of Exeter, Topsham, Ottery St. Mary, rural and town, right up to Broadhembury where a former and well-known hon. Member, Sir Cedric Drewe, still has his family home. Payhembury and Plymtree, and had an electorate of about 63,000. I have lost those areas. I still have all the coast, Honiton, Axminster, Budleigh Salterton and Sidmouth. If I added to my present electorate of 83,000 the parishes that I had in 1967, the electorate would be 107,000—an expansion in 21 years of more than 70 per cent.

Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen , South Hams

Is my hon. Friend not illustrating something about which we are all worried—the way in which the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, which is controlled by the Government, presents statistics on population development which become a self-fulfilling prophecy? If it says that another 50,000 people will move to the Honiton area in the next 10 years, the planners give credence to that projection by allowing development which enables 50,000 people to move into the area. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government must consider how they move people who have no intention of moving until the Government direct them to do so because the Government's statistical department says they should?

Photo of Sir Peter Emery Sir Peter Emery , Honiton

I understand my hon. Friend's argument, but it is not so much that the Government direct them there.

I was about to say that we cannot go on in this way. There is no way in which the countryside can continue to absorb so much housing if we are to maintain its beauty. I accept the considerable need for housing, but we have to balance that need with the impact on the environment.

Many retired people would like to find a home in east Devon or the south-west. Many thousands have already done so, but we cannot simply continue to build homes so that demand is automatically met. East Devon cannot continue to absorb this catastrophic population explosion. We cannot, and must not, allow the continued spread of the concrete jungle as, once it has come, it cannot he taken back.

When I first represented Exmouth, it had a population of 17,000. It has been allowed to spread out and more than 30,000 people now live there. Looking down on Colyton from the hills, one can see the beautiful, old, small country town, but the expansion into housing estates around it is ruining it and the countryside.

I am taking the example of my constituency, but I believe that the same applies to the north-east just as it does to the south-east. We cannot allow this spread of the city. There is now the possibility of about 280 acres being taken from Exeter airport. The Devon agricultural show is being moved from inside the city to east Devon. There is a possibility of a new industrial estate being put on Stuarts land, which also is outside Exeter.

Given the way in which inquiries are now proceeding, and the way in which appeals are being allowed by the Department of the Environment, I believe that in the next 15 years we shall see development spreading out of those sites. Within 20 or 25 years, Exeter city will be demanding that its boundaries be widened to eat into approximately a quarter more of east Devon. I do not think that that makes sense either to the Government or to those who wish to protect the environment in which they live.

I wish not merely to complain, but to make suggestions. First, I believe that the views of the local planning authority and the advice given by parish and town councils must now be allowed to stand, and to be overturned only in extreme instances by the Department's officials or inspectors on appeal. The views of local people must be taken into account much more.

Secondly, we need to revise the Government's guidenotes to local authorities so that they do not lead developers to believe that they will be able to get around local officials. Local officials should not use them as a "guard" with which to advise councillors to grant planning requests, because if they do not they are likely to find that the guidenotes will allow appeals: often councillors do not hold to their preferred judgments, having been warned by officials that any appeal will be won by the developer.

The Department's guidance note No. 12, published in 1988, stresses the need for clear up-to-date local plans, consistent with national, regional and structure plan policies and setting out detailed policies and specific proposals for the use of land. When a matter goes to appeal, the inspector will have the views of the local planning authority and the developer and the guidance notes on the needs of housing. The balance is two-to-one in favour of the developer if a local plan does not exist. That local plan should be immediately available.

I urge the Minister to back the policy that I am supporting in my constituency: that local people and local parishes should produce a draft local plan and submit it to their district council. Even if not approved, it can be used in evidence until something is approved, so that the inspector can refer to some aspect of local planning.

I have to tell my hon. Friend the Minister that his Department is immensely unpopular in the south-west. The Government are not seen to be bending over backwards to protect the environment. Ministers say that that is what they want, but their words are not borne out by what happens when inspectors deal with appeals. If Ministers do not quickly come to grips with the matter, it will become a serious problem not only for the Government but for the country.

3 am

Photo of Mr Jerry Wiggin Mr Jerry Wiggin , Weston-Super-Mare

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) on a most lucid exposition of the bare bones of this important case. I wish that at this extraordinary hour of the morning we could all put across a case so well.

I welcome the appearance of a new Minister on this subject and hope that he will appreciate that for years some of us have been seeking to pressurise the Government to take a different view. We are aware of his open-minded approach and I hope that he will feel able to take yet another look at the background to the difficulties raised by planning applications, not just in the south and south-east but around our urban conurbations,.

Among those who take an interest in these matters are colleagues from cities such as York, Chester, Manchester and Liverpool and from as far west as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery). That shows that the problem is not confined to the south-east, although for obvious reasons the pressures on the home counties are greater.

Previous Ministers have sought to dodge the fact that central Government must take responsibility for deciding where planning applications should be accepted. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) hinted in his intervention, there is no point in a system in which the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys is required to produce a figure that is revised by an astonishing degree in a short time—such as 30 per cent. in two years. That is then cut by the Department when it suits the Department to do so. The south-eastern SERPLAN and the counties that belong to it are then required to share the number of houses and provide room for them. That is not planning. It is necessary for the Government to state the figures that they will approve for SERPLAN.

I commend the concept of planning regions and think that the Government are working on it in an attempt to extend the general thought of planning by region. I hope that the Government will start to take some responsibility for deciding total numbers because it is not good enough to do it in the way that it is being presently done. Some people understand that to mean telling people where to live, but that is not the case. It is saying where planning applications will be granted, and from that decision economic consequences will flow. At no time during discussion of such matters has our group ever moved from the acceptance of the fact that if planning applications are continually refused in areas of heavy pressure, it will have economic consequences.

One has only to look at planning applications and house prices in the north to see that what we propose has a beneficial side effect. It is that parts of the country where there has been some economic neglect will begin to receive extra attention because of the relative cheapness of housing, better facilities, easier modes of transport and greater availability of labour. The Government should acknowledge that they have a role in planning the nation's population and location. If they did that, much of the problem would start to go away. I hope that the Minister will not shelter behind the excuse that he has a quasi-judicial capacity in such matters and is unable to comment on individual cases and applications. That has often happened in the past.

We have a very British system, in which the Government put themselves at arm's length from the initial application by allowing, quite correctly, the local authority to deal with it in the first place. Then there is an appeal, they appoint an inspector and do what they were going to do anyway. The whole process has become ludicrously expensive. A huge legal industry has arisen around it, with vast costs. My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks mentioned the personal distress caused to many people during such a process.

While I welcome a number of the decisions that have been taken recently against some of the activities of such organisations as consortium developments, the Foxley Wood decision stands out as an illogical extension of everything that the Government have said. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) is active in this case and has worked closely with us on it. He raised the matter this afternoon. The Foxley Wood application is contrary to the local plan and to the county structure plan. It takes in a large part of a site of special scientific interest, and the local inspector recommended that the application should be turned down. My right hon. Friend the previous Secretary of State for the Environment said that he was minded to overturn the inspector's decision. I suggest that my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State be unminded, and that he has a close look at this. Overturning the decision will do more than cause an enormous amount of anger in a part of the country where the Government still command a great deal of respect and support. I would not wish to make too much of this point, but it is a fair one. It will also establish an unfortunate precedent and will give a green light to those developers who believe that, by modestly decreasing or increasing numbers, they can establish new towns of 4,500 houses, with all the consequence that such a development produces.

Such a development would be too small to develop much of the infrastructure that is needed, so the local hospitals and schools, special facilities and roads will be overloaded by up to 20,000 people. It is not so small that it will not have an effect. One could go on for a long time about the undesirability of such developments. People have said that the county accepted the figures, but it did not. It was told the figures by central Government and was allocated the figures by SERPLAN. If the Government insist on allowing substantial planning applications for housing developments in the home counties, including northern Hampshire, my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State will have a load of political trouble, and a great deal of support for our party will be used to prevent such precedents. I hope that Foxley Wood will be an example of the new view prevailing in Marsham street.

Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen , South Hams

I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me for raising two points in an intervention, but he makes an important point about infrastructure. Is not the problem in the south compounded by the Government's failure to provide the necessary infrastructure when they allow development—whether for 10 or 50 houses—by way of roads, police, schools, hospitals and lighting? People coming to an area are expected to be absorbed and the infrastructure is expected to cope, so Government funding is not made available to provide the facilities that those people rightly expect. Should not a criterion for planning in the future be that the Government should agree to give planning permission for the development of a village or two only if the public funds are available to maintain the existing high standard of facilities for those who move in?

Photo of Mr Jerry Wiggin Mr Jerry Wiggin , Weston-Super-Mare

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. It is worth saying that we are concerned about those who are our constituents now. We would, of course, be deeply interested if others were to move in. It is our duty, however, to protect those who are our constituents now. That is only right and proper. I have never flinched from the charge "Not in your back yard." So what? Surely that is my responsibility. I accept entirely what my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) said about the quality of life.

I understand that a planning Bill is to be introduced during the next Session and that it will contain a proposal to alter the not yet well established procedure of structure plans. It has taken about 14 years to complete the first round of structure plans. When the procedure is just about beginning to work, it is somewhat precipitate to throw it overboard. We should bear in mind that housebuilders, who in these circumstances perhaps cannot be seen as our friends, believe that a firm structure plan is better from their point of view than too much flexibility. They need firmness. They need to know the amount of land that will be available so that they can plan their land banks, assess demand and establish their pricing and numbers. I understand that the Council for the Protection of Rural England will say that it does not believe that abolishing structure plans is likely to be helpful from its point of view. Many of my colleagues believe that the Government will be treading on delicate ground if they proceed with the abolition of structure plans as they propose. It is the rigidity of the structure plan that we want to see maintained.

We have come to find ourselves in an unholy mess with what I can describe only as planning by bribery. If a developer wants to erect a large number of houses, he need think only of an imaginative scheme to go alongside it. That can be a road, for example, or in a case—but perhaps it would be best not to go into my constituency problems. I am remaining somewhat neutral about one in particular. A developer can approach a local authority and say, "Wouldn't you like to have this and that? Incidentally, I want 1,500 houses." That leads to planning by bribery, and that is not the concept which thcose who drafted the original legislation 40 years ago had in mind. A way must be found of overcoming the problem.

The political reaction to all these matters originates in a deterioration in the quality of life when too many people come to live in too small an area, and here I take up the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams. If the quality of life can be maintained, the democratic objection to an increase in housing numbers in an area will be much reduced. Unless the Government can find ways of providing the necessary facilities—I have roads in mind especially, which are in a scandalous condition in constituences such as mine—the problem will continue as each housing application comes forward.

I hope that my colleague from the county of Avon, the hon. Member for South Hams, will establish himself as being extremely green minded. Those who speak on these matters and who take an active interest in them have been as green as it is possible to be. Accusations that the Conservative party is ignoring these matters should be set against an account of our activities. I hope that the deep feelings that are held by many of us will be respected. The number of us who are in the Chamber at this extraordinary hour should reveal the depth of feeling among the supporters of the Government.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Pattie Mr Geoffrey Pattie , Chertsey and Walton 3:14 am, 27th July 1989

I have been in this place for 15 years and in each of those years planning issues have formed the largest part of my constituency case load. If anything, the case load has increased in recent times.

I was playing a tape of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann the other day in my car. During the course of the tape Michael Flanders says that a friend of his has gone to live in a suburb of south London called Brighton. That is rather daunting as the tape was recorded in about 1963. I fear that we are well on the way to that kind of "megopolis", whereby it would be possible to drive from the south coast to north London, with all the communities between them joined together.

The centre of my own constituency of Chertsey and Walton is only 22 miles from Westminster. As it is so conveniently within commuting distance of London, many people want to live there and housing developments in the area have proliferated over the years. During my time in the House, motorways have also arrived in the form of the M25 and the M3, which bisect my constituency. One can add to that the proximity of Heathrow, helicopter routes, a small local airfield, and the most recent and sensationally grotesque proposal for a waste tip, which is to take the form not of landfill but of what I can only describe as "landbuild" as the waste to be disposed of by Cementation will reach a height of 70 m. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister and other right hon. and hon. Members will dwell on the prospect of a waste tip 70 m high in the rural heart of my constituency.

My constituency is not helped topographically by having gravel deposits below the surface. There are constant battles over gravel extraction, and in recent years the local community has been successful in saving Chertsey Meads, where people can walk or exercise their horses, and Wey Manor Farm. Nevertheless, planning pressures lead my constituents to look for greater protection from planning laws, not less. They seek to avoid the joining of small communities, which is different from some of the problems described by my right hon. and hon. Friends. It is all part of the same picture, but one is not necessarily always talking in terms of lovely rural countryside which risks having a Foxley Wood dropped in the middle of it. For my constituents, it is important that their relatively small towns and communities are not joined together. Even if the individual areas of green land which separate them appear insignificant, they are the only lungs available to my constituents for recreation and exercise.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) said, planning expectations become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Developers take a long-term view and do not mind holding on to land for 10, 15 or 20 years. They continually make applications and wear down the local council. I should like to see an escalating tariff, which would make it more and more expensive for developers to continue submitting fresh planning applications. The local community often has to make great efforts to raise money to retain a Queen's Counsel, only to be certain that even if they win an appeal the chances are that the developer will soon be making a similar if not identical application. The developers do not need to worry as they have the time and the resources to continue relentlessly grinding down the local community. That is highly unsatisfactory.

Developers often denigrate the political process by their comments in local newspapers or at public inquiries. To them the process of local democracy is somewhat inconvenient—a rather tedious formality which stands in the way of the inevitable, ongoing process of joining up all the communities in a constituency such as mine until only a vast outer London sprawl remains.

As Members of Parliament, we have a duty to try to protect for future generations something resembling a decent environment and a decent quality of life. We therefore look to the Government to operate the planning laws in a way that is certain and tough and that shows that some things will not be allowed. The message will finally reach some developers that there are some activities in which they will be able to engage. We need development in some parts of the country in the controlled and careful manner that my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) described when he introduced the debate in such an admirable manner. Our fundamental duty as Members of Parliament is to do all that we can to prevent any further erosion of the standard of living and quality of life of our constituents, and so much of that depends on how the planning laws are operated.

Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen , South Hams 3:20 am, 27th July 1989

It is always a pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) at any time of the day or night. Even at 3.20 in the morning it is a great delight to see him here.

My hon. Friend will agree that the group of hon. Members here tonight are the advance party. The Minister is undergoing a small test of how he will respond to what is in fact an army of about 100 Members of Parliament, whose force he should not underestimate, representing Conservative Members from all over the country, who feel that the Government have got their planning policy hopelessley wrong.

We are delighted to see my hon. Friend the new Minister on the Front Bench. We hope that he will take back to his Department what is being said by the advance party. I feel sure that the new team in the Department of the Environment, including the Secretary of State, would wish to come to terms and to grips with what to us is probably the most serious problem in our constituencies—the unrestrained and tasteless growth of the population with a consequent increase in housing on a scale that has never been seen before and that is destroying the quality of life and the beauty of the countryside in our constituencies on a scale and at a rate which is utterly unacceptable to many of my hon. Friends.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to realise that. although there is a small team of comparatively senior and influential Members here tonight, it is nothing to what he may see if the Government do not get this right and start having a meaningful discussion with the Back-Bench groups who feel that something has gone wrong and needs to be put right.

We welcome my hon. Friend the Minister on the Front Bench tonight, but we have seen a great number of Ministers in that place. No sooner does a Minister get to grips with the problem than he is moved on again. It is rather like Dante's "Inferno". As soon as they get a grasp of the problem my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister moves them on again. I do not know how many Ministers have preceded my hon. Friend or how many Back Benchers have tried to explain the problem to those Ministers. As soon as they understand the point, off they go again.

I hope that my hon. Friend will dig his heels in and say, "I am not moving on. I am staying right here until I have dealt with this tremendous problem." We know of my hon. Friend's conviction in planning matters. We know that this is new to him and we know that Lewisham does not have the green fields that he would like it to have, but we feel sure that he would not wish all our constituencies south of Watford to be an unrestrained growth of concrete. That is what we are here to discuss.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks, who is known to be balanced in his judgment and approach, introduced the debate in the most measured tones. We are not saying that there should be no development in the south. We are not saying that there should be no growth, no new homes, no starter homes for people in low-income groups. We are desperately keen on more homes for indigenous local people, who are being driven out of the rural constituencies in the south-west because of the great demand, especially among the retired population, to come to live in these beautiful areas.

We want more starter homes and more growth, but it must be restrained, it must be indigenous and it must be controlled to ensure that the necessary infrastructure exists. It is no good building more and more homes if there are not sufficient schools to which the children of families who live in them can go. Ivybridge in my constituency, just south of the Dartmoor national park. is one of the fastest growing towns in Europe; the county council has allowed so much growth that the schools have 30, 40 or even 50 children to a class. That is quite scandalous.

As one builds more and more houses, one places greater demand on hospitals. The Government should not allow areas to expand if there are not enough hospital places. Similarly, the police say that they do not have sufficient manpower to protect all those people and that the population is growing too fast. That, to my mind, is unrestrained and irresponsible planning. Any amendment of the structure plan must include a relationship between growth and infrastructure, and we must spell out what infrastructure is required per thousand people before allowing any further growth.

Our first message to the Minister is that we do not oppose expansion and development, but we oppose pure market force development which pays no regard to the quality of life of those who live in our areas. There is nothing wrong in Conservative Members saying that, and we know that it will have considerable support from the new regime at the Department of the Environment. I hope that, as a starting point, the Minister will convey our belief and our concern about that.

My remarks will be on a slightly different tack from those of other hon. Members. I have had one concern for more than 10 years, and I am getting nearly as bored with it as are Ministers who hear me make almost identical speeches every time they are here to answer a debate, but the point is worth making again because it remains just as relevant. The pressure on the green fields around our cities is aggravated by the fact that the Government have repeatedly failed to use the vacant, dormant, under-utilised land in public ownership that exists throughout the country, which is allowed to continue to grow in quantity in spite of the register set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), the then Secretary of State. My right hon. Friend rightly said, "We do not have to continue to build on green field sites at the present rate if we can release some of the land that exists amid our urban sprawls. It is vacant, dormant and derelict; it is surplus to requirement and it is in public ownership." As many of my hon. Friends will know, that is a matter on which I have majored. I have been driven almost to the point of distraction in my search to discover how much land there is, where it is, what is happening to it and why it is not being used.

In this short debate it might be worth refreshing the Minister's memory of what we are talking about and why there is a correlation between the continued demand for green field development and the Government's continued failure to do anything about the amount of public vacant land which continues to increase and continues not to be used.

Between 1982 and 1986, on a broad-brush approach, there were more than 100,000 acres of public unused and underutilised land on the Department of the Environment's register. That figure is fairly accurate because there are 39 full-time officials in the Department of the Environment dealing with the register and the Minister may like to talk to them about it. The register is like an A to Z telephone directory. It contains the lists of all the lands that are vacant, dormant and underutilised in the country. It is enormous and lists thousands of sites. It is the job of those civil servants constantly to update the register and to put down a marker as more and more land becomes available.

It is true to say that, whereas there were more than 100,000 acres on the register until 1986, that figure has been reduced. There are now about 85,200 acres. However, that comprises 8,134 sites. We could build an awful lot of homes, hospitals, schools and industrial and office buildings on 8,134 sites. The Minister should not be mistaken about this. Those sites are of one acre and over because my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley, when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, insisted on the exclusion of great tracts of land. Therefore, those 85,200 acres are only land that fits the criteria laid down by my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley.

Professor Alice Coleman of Kings college, the famous lady who deals with land use, says that the true figure is nearer double the 85,200 acres if we ignore the exclusions. Whether it is 85,000 or 170,000 acres, the important point for the House to consider is that that figure is not static.

The most fascinating result of my research into these matters is that each year the Minister will claim that an enormous number of acres have come off the register, but an equal number have been added. The planning process is creating more and more land. It is like a food machine: more meat is put into the mincer, and understandably more comes out.

In February 1989, in reply to a parliamentary question to the former Minister, before he moved into his next phase of Dante's "Inferno," I was told that, while in 1984 some 6,800 acres of vacant land were removed from the register, the Minister had to admit that 7,700 acres came on to it. In 1985, although 12,300 acres were removed, 10,800 acres were added. In 1986, some 6,300 acres were added, and 7,700 acres were added in 1987. In 1988, 4,800 acres were added. However many acres come off the register at one end, the very planning process produces more vacant, dormant and derelict land in public ownership at the other end. However many acres the Government say they have got off the register, we can be sure that more and more will be coming on to it. The Government should not feel complacent about the fact that land is coming off the register when so much continues to go on to it.

Since 1982, a total of 37,805 acres have become vacant, dormant and underutilised. That means that 37,805 acres could and should have been used, and could still be used, for housing before green field sites have to be used. Also, much public vacant land will become private vacant land when nationalised industries are privatised. For example, 2,231 acres are in electricity industry ownership, and 2,952 acres are in water authority ownership. I am sure that my hon. Friends would like to know that the Minister's own Property Services Agency has 936 acres of vacant land. Surely the Minister should set an example to the country and get rid of some of that land before he starts to poach green field sites belonging to local authorities and other developers.

The point that I have been making tirelessly and tiresomely for many years is that nearly 49,000 acres of land were in local authority ownership on 31 May 1989. Also, 7,900 sites are on the land register, and we are being pressed to use more green field sites in preference to public vacant land in unused or underutilised areas. That is: my first contention. [Interruption.] As my hon. Friends know, I can go on for a day and a night. This matter is so important that the House would like to hear more about it at any time of the day or night.

The planning process is creating and developing more public vacant land, and the Minister's Department is doing nothing to use it first. He may wish to be reminded of a splendid publication called "PLUMS—Public Land Utilisation Management Schemes", which I must admit that I wrote. That book offers a solution to public vacant land problems. At this time of the night, I do not wish my hon. Friend the Minister to think that he can get off lightly by being told the plot and the way in which the story unfolds. I am told that the book is better than Horlicks. If he takes the book home tonight, it will give him an insight into how he can tackle the problem.

It would be quite wrong to continue any further. I told the Minister about chapter one. There are another nine chapters, and they should be brought to successive debates that the Minister has the good fortune to hear. At the moment, all he should know is that he has seen the advance party approaching. If another 90 colleagues were present, he would find himself in the Chamber for a considerably longer time. I urge him to stress to the Secretary of State that not an idle group but a cross-section of our great party is deeply concerned that the Government have failed in their responsibility to tackle the problem of tasteful development and to preserve our green and pleasant land.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Baker Mr Nicholas Baker , North Dorset 3:38 am, 27th July 1989

This has been an excellent debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) on his introduction and I congratulate my hon. Friends on the variety of points that they have made. I shall try not to repeat any of those points, but I strongly agree with the force of the arguments. The surroundings that we enjoy are far more important to people than politicians yet seem to realise. We have a duty to leave to our children and grandchildren an environment of which we are leaseholders and not freeholders. The point of my hon. Friend's case is right and I hope that the Minister will recognise that.

I say to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) that we are right to say what should happen in our back yards. We are concerned about green fields, more particularly in the debate this evening because of our constituents who live in or near them, but also because those green fields are there for people from Hammersmith to come and enjoy. They are, therefore, an asset to the people of Hammersmith. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) mentioned that we are committed to making inner cities places in which people want to live and work. That is the other half of our debate.

The former Secretary of State for the Environment was certainly a strong protector of the green belt. His decision on the Grange estate, just outside my constituency, was especially welcome to the people in Dorset and to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley), who would have liked to have been present for this debate. That illustrates that we are concerned not about the green belt over which the former Secretary of State was resolute, for which I praise him, but about the other green fields, where bodies such as Consortium Developments—the bulls in the delicate china shop of our environment—behave in a co-ordinated and over-powering way in launching their attacks to try to establish new towns in a completely inappropriate manner. I hope that the new Secretary of State will resist new towns in Foxley Wood and elsewhere.

On many occasions I have said that our planning system is out of date and needs to be changed because it does not meet today's needs. I shall make two general points which I do not think have been mentioned before. First, I believe that our planning law should recognise environmental capacities. By that I mean that a place's capacity to absorb new development is finite. That should be a factor in planning law. Developers argue all the time that any number of new developments could be fitted in. Our planning law should look at the matter from the other perspective and say, "What developments can a place and its infrastructure take on?" That will give us some different answers.

My second point, which has been mentioned by some of my hon. Friends already, concerns numbers. I want to see assessments of numbers based upon need and not the demands of the developers. Indeed, one of my concerns about the White Paper is that I understand that its assessment of numbers is based upon the SERPLAN system of producing anticipated numbers. The SERPLAN system of numbers is really developer based and driven out of the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. I do not believe that is good enough. We should not be trying to assess numbers in that way. It is based not on need, but on demand, which is developer driven.

We shall be discussing the White Paper in the next Session of Parliament. The Government put out proposals in 1986 to try to simplify and speed up the planning process. That is an aim that I share and applaud, but I believe that that aim can be achieved only by tightening up the planning system, so that at every level, national, regional and local, it is made clear—certainly more clear than it is at present—how the land is to be used. It is proposed that county structure plans should be abolished and replaced by district development plans, accompanied by a statement of county planning policies.

At first glance, the White Paper seems to share some of the objectives that some of my colleagues and I put forward in a pamphlet entitled "This Pleasant Land", which has already been mentioned.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Baker Mr Nicholas Baker , North Dorset

As usual, my hon. Friend is very kind.

Having read the White Paper closely, I am concerned that the Department of the Environment will produce the figures on which, at every stage, the plans are to be based. The figures will be provided not by local authorities or determined with their agreement but by the Department under the SERPLAN system.

My grounds for fearing that the White Paper proposals will involve the Secretary of State at a lower level of the planning process appear in paragraph 2.13 of the White Paper. The Secretary of State will have to agree that a statement of county planning policies shall cover any matters other than those set out in the six-point core of strategic issues. The paragraph continues by saying that county planning statements must be updated and, indeed, altered following the issue of planning guidance by the Secretary of State. Under the White Paper's proposals, the Secretary of State's powers will increase considerably, which gives me—and should give many other people—considerable cause for concern.

In the past week, I have put forward some proposals for low-cost housing in rural areas. Rural towns and villages have become affluent and prices have risen more rapidly than elsewhere. Migration of people from cities, movement on retirement, inadequate planning policies and lower-than-average incomes have restricted access to low-cost housing for local people. In many rural areas—especially, though not exclusively, in southern England—the problem is acute. Inadequate attention is being given to the housing needs of people on lower incomes, whose contribution to community life is essential, and they are being squeezed out of the villages in which their families have lived, often for hundreds of years.

To deal with that problem, housing surveys should be carried out locally. The Department should support the process of carrying out surveys and should give advice on how they should be done. Parish meetings should be given powers to conduct the operation and to require local authorities to carry out surveys in the absence of parish or town councils. The cost should be met by district councils with help from the Treasury.

Having identified sites in a parish or town, parish councils should be encouraged to propose to their annual meetings that village housing trusts should be formed for the provision of low-cost accommodation to meet local needs. I should like to see a more consistent approach to the provision of low-cost housing. I advocate, in this and in many other ways, greater powers of responsibility being given to parish councils in planning policy. They are generally aware of the parish's needs, including the need for more jobs to replace those that agriculture no longer provides and the need for local housing. They are exactly the bodies which should oversee planning. I no longer believe that council-owned housing is the way to deal with problems in rural areas.

I support my hon. Friends' remarks about the urgent need to change our planning legislation and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider carefully the speeches that have been made.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith 3:49 am, 27th July 1989

The Labour party shares the concerns expressed by Conservative Members about what is happening to the countryside and the villages of England, particularly in the south. About a year and a half ago, I spoke to the Royal Town Planning Institute and said that the south of England was no longer the countryside that we remembered, but a form of urban parkland, because it was managed countryside with an increasing amount of building.

Conservative Members have brought this on themselves. In the 1960s and 1970s, increasing overdevelopment was a serious problem in the south of England. The last thing it needed was what it got in 1979, when the new Secretary of State for the Environment boasted of having a bonfire of planning controls. He has had the audacity to complain because the now recently departed and little lamented Secretary of State for the Environment poured petrol on the flames.

The Conservative party destroyed planning as we had known it. It handed planning on a platter to the developers. Now it complains because developers are reaping the benefits. The Government's other fatal mistake was to undermine and devalue local government to the extent that it no longer controls its area. Those are the reasons why so many Conservative Members are saying, "Please give some power back to my local authority, the planners and my local community." The Conservative Government took that power away.

The Government then fell back on the daft argument about market forces. I could hardly believe my ears when the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen), first looking round to see that no Whip was present to report him to the Prime Minister, said that market forces could undermine the quality of life. Of course they can. The Government have made it much easier for market forces to operate, although there can never be a free market for housing. By trying to pretend that there is a free market, they opened up the worst aspects of ordinary development which are on green field sites.

The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) complains about green field site building. It makes much more sense to build on green field sites than on derelict land, because it is cheaper and easier, and provides more flexibility in development. When he opens a debate about ending green field site development and using derelict land, he should make it clear that there are only two ways to achieve that: by introducing more planning legislation for local authorities, not by undermining and destroying them, or by subsidising builders to develop derelict land.

The "not in my back yard" syndrome is caused by Government policies. Either people build on a green field site or not at all. It is worth examining the building figures for the past 12 months. The Government expect the free market to provide the housing that is necessary. The new build figures this year are 20 per cent. down on last year's figures. Why? Because of interest rates. Who is being provided for? The hon. Member for Sevenoaks believes that there is choice in housing. What is there for his constituents—not just those on average or below average income but above average income—to buy or rent? There is a catastrophic shortage of low-cost accommodation for rent or sale in southern Britain.

Whenever I make a speech on this, I receive letters and phone calls from people who live in areas such as the hon. Member's, saying, "I live in a £200,000 house but there is nowhere for my son or daughter to rent or buy. There is nowhere for the village postman, the nurse, the driver or teacher." What used to be regarded as an inner-city problem is developing in rural areas. Communities are being torn apart, just as they were in inner-city areas. Unless we address that through planning, we shall have the same problems in rural areas as we have in the cities.

It is daft to suggest that we use docklands as an example. It is an appalling example of the Government pouring taxpayers' money into massive subsidies which result in developments occurring in the opposite way to the way they occur in every other developed country. Other countries put the infrastructure in first, subsidised by the public sector, and then the private sector is allowed to complete the development.

In docklands, where it is happening the other way round, the money is pouring into the pockets of the developers out of the pockets of the taxpayers, and we are getting the wrong type of development. How can people who need low-cost housing find homes in docklands? I warn the hon. Member for Sevenoaks that it will happen in his constituency in the same way as it is happening in London.

The answer is to give local authorities back their planning powers, to cease to undermine and demoralise local councillors and planning officers and to make sure that the planning rules put the ball in the court of the community and councillors and not in the court of the developers.

Developers are at present setting the pace, not just because of the appeals system but because of the way in which the Government have structured the market. It can never be a free market, because the supply of land and buildings is too inelastic; because the subsidy system works against it being a free market, particularly mortgage income tax relief, which destroys the concept of a free market; and because, although the Government have destroyed many of the planning regulations, there are sufficient regulations left to ensure that a free market cannot operate.

One of the tragedies of the philosophy that has been rammed down our throats for the last 10 years is the belief that a free market is the best of all possible options for most people. In fact, it is a short-term policy, and for the quality of the environment in areas such as the south of Britain, where 20 million people live, it is a disaster. That is why the Conservatives are getting into so much trouble in this part of Britain.

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East 3:56 am, 27th July 1989

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) that this has been an excellent debate. I fully respect the clear strength of feeling that exists on this issue, as evidenced by the speeches of a number of my senior hon. Friends who, among them, have decades of much-valued experience and whose views have provided a helpful and thought-provoking debate and an excellent start to my work on this subject.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) that we will listen carefully and attempt to match our words with deeds, an objective which was sought by my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery). I became somewhat concerned when my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams said that as soon as a Minister said, "I understand", he was moved on. After just 18 hours in the job, I face that prospect with some trepidation. I have listened carefully and I am beginning to understand, and I hope that when I wake up later in the day I shall not be moved on because a number of important and challenging issues have been raised.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) for raising an issue that is of fundamental importance to the future character of the nation's towns, cities and countryside. Underlying all the policies has been concern that the pressure of development poses a threat to the environment. At at a time of unparalleled economic prosperity, that pressure and those concerns are heightened, particularly in the south-east of England, but—as my hon. Friends the Members for Honiton and for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) said—in other parts of the country as well.

The debate, therefore, is about how to accommodate economic growth in ways that enhance the quality of life in urban and rural communities and conserve our countryside heritage. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks said, it is a question of balancing the demand for homes against the existing environment. That process cannot ignore the changes that are taking place in society and in people's expectations.

Population growth is critical in this area, and I am grateful to hon. Members for assisting my learning curve by highlighting a number of important matters, not least the numbers question, an issue at which I shall look closely.

I shall, in the short time left to me, reflect on what I consider to be an essential matter that was raised by my hon. Friends. I refer to the availability of land in towns and cities and the need to ensure that such land is used in preference to green field sites. I agree with my hon. Friends on this point. I represent an area at the heart of the inner city—Lewisham—and I know that it is important that full and effective use is made of land within existing urban areas. My experience has shown that there are many opportunities arising from conversions, improvement and redevelopment, the bringing into use of neglected, unused or derelict land, including sites on land registers—I take on board the points made on that issue—and sites suitable for small-scale housing schemes in inner-city areas such as my constituency.

The important point is to put the land that is available in areas such as my constituency to good use. It is also important to make every effort to ensure that such land is placed as a priority over green field sites so that we can retain green field sites and the green belt. I appreciate that the debate has not dealt primarily with the green belts and I appreciate also my hon. Friends' comments on the success of that policy. I believe strongly that green belt policy should not allow for flexibility about what is or is not green belt land. However, that is another point and I hope that we can consider it carefully on other occasions. Many important points have been raised, not least the need to respond to local people and to ensure that their needs are met and that there is a mechanism to facilitate listening to and implementing their wishes more fully.

Those are only some of the issues that were raised. I have listened to all the issues discussed. I hope that my hon. Friends will forgive me for not responding to all their points because of the time constraint, but I look forward to a constructive and—I hope—long-standing debate on this issue which will enable us to work constructively to achieve many of the goals that my hon. Friends have set for the Government in this constructive debate.