I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to place before Parliament today an important issue which affects my constituents and many other citizens in Liverpool—the future of the public open spaces and parks in my city. I also wish to take the opportunity to thank the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, for being in his place to answer my questions. In passing, I also thank him for our correspondence on this important issue in the past few months, and for the help and advice that he has given to people concerned about the future of our parkland.
I must say at the outset to hon. Members who are not familiar with Liverpool that there is a caricature of the city which gives a distorted impression of broken-down buildings, acres of dereliction and festering decay. No doubt, as in any urban area, there are such features, but a more balanced picture of the city emerges when visitors discover many of the fine buildings in Liverpool, and when they see Liverpool's rich heritage and, above all, the pride of parks bequeathed by our Victorian forebears.
Liverpool's parks and open spaces have traditionally provided a much needed lung for residents trapped in congested living conditions—people who may not have the advantage of a private garden. For other people, they provide a green wedge breaking the urban sprawl. For others still, the parks are a place to enjoy leisure time and recreation. The playing fields, especially, are much used by members of amateur and junior football teams.
King John gave Liverpool its charter. Since medieval times, there has been a park in the Toxteth area of Liverpool. The poet William Roscoe was a Member of Parliament for three months in 1807, before he was thrown out for voting against the slavery laws. He was an eminent member of the anti-slavery movement, which was a brave thing in Liverpool in those days. Roscoe wrote a number of poems describing the beauty of Liverpool and its parkland on the riverside in Toxteth.
That parkland was rapidly eroded in the 19th century expansion of the city, and it then became municipally owned and administered. Sefton park, in the heart of my constituency, is its last vestige. It and other parks and open spaces in my constituency, such as those at Calderstones and Otterspool, Wavertree playground and Wavertree park, along with other important sites such as Childwall woods in the neighbouring constituency are all now subject to planning developments which will destroy their character.
I am staggered that when we hear such a vast amount of rhetoric from politicians of all parties about our responsibility towards the environment, Liverpool civic leaders should have such scant regard for environment destruction which will assist only the speculator and the profiteer.
In the heart of my constituency, in the Aigburth area, it is proposed to rip up the central reservation of a beautiful suburban area and to put there instead a trunk road bringing yet more heavy vehicles into that part of Liverpool. Similarly, it is suggested that the M62 motorway should be extended into the heart of my constituency, destroying in its path the botanic gardens founded by William Roscoe, to whom I referred.
That follows on the back of the destruction of places such as the Harthill gardens in Calderstones, which were destroyed during the period when militant members of the city ran the council and, in a philistine way, destroyed a collection of orchids which was world famous, pulling down the greenhouses there merely because there had been an industrial dispute and the men who worked in those greenhouses had refused to join the picket lines. As a vindictive act, that parkland was destroyed.
Apart from actions of that kind and the road schemes, why is the city council so intent on so much development of the city's remaining parks and open spaces? At the end of the financial crisis in 1986, when those militant Labour councillors were disqualified from office, the city's leaders had borrowed £60 million from Swiss and Japanese bankers to finance their policies.
The city debt rose to a phenomenal £678 million. Their subsequent inability to meet debt repayments irresponsibly plunged the city into penury. By 1987, the debt was£715 million. By 1988, it was £738 million and by 1989 it was £758 million. This year it topped £774 million. The interest alone to service that debt is £80 million this year. The council has budgeted in 1990 only £10 million to meet those debt charges, so inevitably the crippling burden increases inexorably and grows like Topsy. By the end of this century, the city's debt could be a staggering £1 billion. Every time interest rates rise by just 1 per cent., it costs Liverpool ratepayers £420,000.
Having followed such a fiscally irresponsible approach, the council now says that it must sell assets to pay for its past mistakes—not just the family silver, but the table and chairs as well. For London property speculators, it is like the Klondyke rush as they queue at Euston to take the train north in the fond belief that there is gold in the playing fields and parks of Liverpool. Because the market has been flooded, assets are being sold dirt cheap, so in every respect the city's ratepayers lose.
Along with my city council colleagues Beatrice Fraenkel, Don McKittrick, Len Tyrer and Bert Heritty, I have been urging the council to think again, and I hope that the Minister will deal with several points today. Following the consultation paper which his Department issued on 7 February, which recognises the problems caused by the way in which local authorities seek to grant themselves permission to develop such sites, does he now agree with the view of the Royal Town Planning Institute that no application should be determined by the authority promoting the development? Does he agree also that there can be no question of fairness or objectivity if the council is both defence and prosecution, judge and jury, developer and the assessor? It is positively Kafkaesque to behave in that way.
The former president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, Chris Shepley, said:
Green space is an essential component of the civilised city. Urban green space should be defended as vigorously as green belt, possibly by the introduction of a new category of protected land. The value of private open space as an amenity in visual and ecological terms should be recognised.
Those are the planning issues raised by such developments. Does the Minister agree that such applications should automatically be transferred to an independent inspector, perhaps appointed by the Secretary of State?
The Minister wrote to me on 5 March:
On the planning issues my advice would be to continue to press the case with the City Council since the issues appear to be essentially local ones.
He will know from the correspondence with the Friends of Childwall Woods and Fields and from its chairman, Mr. E. Feeney, that, without guarantees buttressed by the Secretary of State, simple appeals to the magnanimity arid decency of the local council will fall on deaf ears.
Mr. Feeney wrote:
It does appear that the Minister has discretionary powers to 'call in' an application. It would we feel, be a great help to our cause and other causes if the Minister did intervene as we feel we have a good case and it would possibly deter the Council from contemplating further sales of open land. It is not just a local issue as the application would have implications for the whole city.
I concur with that. Is the Minister prepared to call in applications to develop the sites and guarantee that there will be public inquiries?
With regard to the Department's role in the proper use of Liverpool's open spaces, the Minister answered a question that I tabled on 5 March about the international garden festival site in south Liverpool. Some of that land falls in my constituency and I applaud the fact that the Government spent £10·6 million on a major land reclamation project which became the biggest tourist attraction in the country. It was a brilliant scheme and caught the imagination of millions of people in Britain, but it now costs £200,000 per year to maintain the site, the future of which has not been properly thought out. It would be a terrible tragedy if the site were allowed to revert to its previous dereliction and decay.
Why should we not have a royal park designated on that site similar to the royal parks in London which are maintained by the Department of the Environment? Such a designation would be an important step. It would take the park out of the local remit, which would be highly appropriate as it was developed by the Merseyside development corporation, established by the Department. It is even more appropriate when one remembers that Her Majesty the Queen opened the international garden festival. For many reasons, the site could provide local people and visitors to the city with a wonderful resource which can be guaranteed only if the Department of the Environment and the Minister intervene rather than leaving it to local circumstances.
These issues must be seen against a bleak national and international picture of environmental dereliction and decay: 97 per cent. of our British wildflower meadows have been destroyed; 190,000 miles of hedgerow—enough to encircle the earth seven times—have disappeared; three quarters of our internationally important heaths and more than half our unique peat bogs have been destroyed. No fewer than 22 different flowering species have already been lost and many more face extinction. On a global scale, 60,000 plant species have disappeared and one in four of the world's total could be extinct in our lifetime.
Having heard the ecological, fiscal and social arguments, I hope that the House and the Minister will feel compelled to act on the recommendations that I have made today and to ensure that the appropriate guarantees are given so that even more of our precious open space is not destroyed.