I am very grateful for this early opportunity to raise the subject of the Broadmoor Farm, Saltash planning application, which should have been considered by the planning services committee of Caradon district council on Wednesday 24 April 1995.
I welcome the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford), to the Dispatch Box, but I am sorry that the Minister for Railways and Roads is not present instead, since, as will become clear from my remarks, it is the actions of the Highways Agency to which my questions, criticisms and annoyance really apply.
Broadmoor Farm is a 300-acre site located immediately west of Saltash in my constituency and adjacent to the A38 trunk road. It is a very attractive site for business development by any standards. We all hope that at some stage in the not too distant future we shall succeed in attracting to this prestige business park two or three companies of international standard and reputation. That would represent a major inward investment for the national economy. Given the present state of the economy of the Plymouth travel-to-work area, with unemployment at 8 per cent., the impact of the reductions and changes in pattern of our defence expenditure, the adverse effects of the world recession and the fragility of our regional economy, the prospect of the creation of 2,000 or more jobs at that business park is a tangible and exciting proposition.
In November, I took a delegation from Caradon district council to see the Secretary of State for the Environment to discuss economic activity in south-east Cornwall in the context of the single regeneration budget. At the meeting, the projected development of Broadmoor business park was raised. My right hon. Friend assured us that he would do everything he could to facilitate the development, especially in respect of the A38 trunk road improvements. Indeed, he pointed out the role that the integrated Government regional office could play, since he had decided a little earlier that the office should be located in Plymouth. I shall return to issues concerning the A38 road improvement and the regional Government office in a moment.
Broadmoor Farm business park has been the subject of local discussion for almost five years. Statutory bodies, such as Caradon district council and Cornwall county council, have been involved, as have key players such as the West Country development corporation and the Devon and Cornwall development bureau, now called Devon and Cornwall International, which seeks to attract international inward investment to Devon and Cornwall.
There is widespread local support for the desirability of developing Broadmoor Farm business park. It was always understood, however, that no application for outline planning consent could be considered by Caradon district council—the planning authority—until we knew the Department of Transport's preferred line of route for the A38 trunk road improvement.
The announcement of that route was made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport in the summer and was followed by discussions, informal negotiations and numerous meetings between the various statutory organisations that would be involved in the planning process once a formal application for outline planning consent had been submitted. Eventually, for reasons that are not central to the debate, two similar, but not identical, applications were due to be considered by Caradon's planning committee on Wednesday. One was submitted by the owners of Broadmoor Farm and the other by Caradon district council itself.
On 5 April 1995, to go back in time a little, the Department of the Environment wrote to Caradon district council—my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary wrote to me at the same time—indicating that if Caradon district council were minded to grant outline planning permission, the application should first be submitted to the Secretary of State for the Environment to allow him to consider whether it should be called in for his decision. That direction, issued by the Government office for the south-west under the provisions of article 14 of the Town and Country Planning General Development Order 1988, was anticipated and understandable.
In other words, a month ago, the Secretary of State for the Environment was safeguarding his and the Government's position. Indeed, the advice of Caradon's planning officers to the planning services committee for its meeting on Wednesday was that outline planning consents were warranted subject to conditions, which no doubt the Secretary of State for the Environment would have carefully examined subsequently.
We now come to the reason why I have called for this debate. Just 24 hours before Caradon's planning services committee meeting, Caradon's director of planning services received a letter from the Exeter office of the Highways Agency directing Caradon to refuse the two applications on grounds of "prematurity". I was not quite certain that such a word existed in the English language. I hope that I have pronounced it correctly.
To say that we were all caught off balance by that action at such a late hour would be an understatement. Annoyance and anger would be a more accurate description of our feelings. On Tuesday, I was chairing the Committee considering the Child Support Bill when I was informed of the action. The Committee's proceedings were very tranquil and orderly and progress was being made. My mood changed pretty smartly when I received information from Caradon's chief executive about the actions of the Highways Agency. To put it bluntly, having got so far in this protracted process, I wondered what was going on.
On Tuesday afternoon before my Committee resumed, I telephoned the private offices of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads to discover what was happening. As a consequence, on the Wednesday, Caradon's planning committee sensibly deferred the two planning applications.
The Highways Agency's decision raises a number of important issues and I want to ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment the following questions. although I accept that responsibility really rests with my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads.
First, why was there such short notice? It was given just 48 hours ahead of Caradon's planning committee meeting. Is that normal when everyone knew about the planning application as a result of the informal discussions that had been taking place over the previous six months or so?
Secondly, what were the reasons for issuing the direction at that late stage? As I have said, we—Caradon district council, myself and all the interested parties—were always led to believe that once the Department of Transport had made known its preferred line of route for the A38 trunk road improvement between Saltash and Trerulefoot, there was no reason in principle why an application for outline consent could not be considered.
Discussions had been taking place between the applicants' professional advisers and the Highways Agency about road links serving the Broadmoor business park in the event of the business park being developed before the A38 trunk road improvement scheme to which I have referred. The Secretary of State for the Environment had informed us that, before any outline planning consent could be confirmed by Caradon, he would want to see the papers. Surely his actions safeguarded the position.
That brings me to my third question. What was the role of the integrated Government regional office? Among others, the office contains Department of the Environment and Department of Transport personnel. Surely the purpose of the office is to prevent such nonsense from taking place where the right arm of government does not know what the left arm is doing.
Fourthly, does not the Highways Agency realise the economic, social and political importance of the project not only to my constituency and the Plymouth travel-to-work area but to the United Kingdom as a whole, given the inward investment potential?
I am not talking about some tin-shack commercial development proposal. It involves 300 acres with a job creation potential of 2,000 or more in an area that has suffered adversely economically as a consequence of changes in defence, the rundown in our basic employment source, the world recession and from an economy which is still very fragile. The aim is to attract two or three major inward investors to the United Kingdom on that site.
If my hon. Friend the Minister accepts the logic of what I have said, my fifth question is will the Highways Agency now withdraw the direction to refuse? I hope, as do my constituents, Caradon district council and the developers, that we can now get on with this exciting and major project.
I find it somewhat ironic that the Department of Trade and Industry calls itself the Department of enterprise. However, here we have a project from the private sector, supported by the public sector, yet that very enterprise is being stifled as a direct consequence of the actions of the Highways Agency. We want to get on with the job because it will have very positive, beneficial and favourable consequences not only for my constituency and for the region, but for the United Kingdom as a whole.
I want to respond to some of the points that have been raised by my hon. Friend and on behalf of my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads. I will ensure that he receives a copy of the points that have been raised, even if I have to sign the copy of Hansard and send it to him myself.
I understand the concerns expressed emphatically by my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) about Broadmoor Farm business park. From earlier discussions, I also understand that my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads is concerned about the matter.
As has been said, the land in question at Broadmoor Farm is an area of 450 acres and is located to the north-west of Saltash on the west side of the Tamar river, opposite the city of Plymouth. Although I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East is aware of its position, at least what I have said enables me to get the picture.
The area of land is substantial and it is unique in the far south-west. It lies close to the heart of the sub-region. It is generally free of planning constraints—at least it was—and it is physically capable of development. It is also in a limited number of ownerships. The land lies adjacent to, and north of, the A38. Those are important attributes affecting the potential for development in the future, particularly in that area.
The Government are concerned to secure the long-term prosperity of the important sub-region and have taken positive steps to secure that objective generally, and in relation to the particular site. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East explained, we established last year a joint Government office for the south-west in Plymouth to help to secure an integrated approach to promotion, planning and investment in the sub-region. I am sure that my hon. Friend welcomes the presence and local availability of senior Government officers and officials, who appreciate the interests and concerns of his constituents and of those throughout Cornwall and Devon.
The most important consideration to be borne in mind is that, as my hon. Friend has explained, the site is attractive and suitable for major inward investment. Such a site is at a premium in the sub-region and that gives added importance to the future designation and use of the land at Broadmoor Farm.
The current development plans for the area are the approved Cornwall structure plan, which looks ahead to the year 2001, and the county countryside local plan. However, as my hon. Friend is aware, neither makes provision for development at Broadmoor Farm. The county is consulting on a new structure plan looking to the year 2011 and Caradon district council has placed its district local plan on deposit for objections. Both those plans include proposals for major investment at Broadmoor Farm.
We are concerned that that unique asset should be effectively preserved for a single major inward investment and should not be subject to piecemeal development that could and should be accommodated satisfactorily on other sites already designated for business use or with planning permission. I am aware from my hon. Friend's approach and the points that he made that he agrees with that; obviously, Caradon district council also agrees.
The Government's view of the potential of Broadmoor Farm and its wider economic value is reflected in the decision to realign the preferred route of the A38 improvement scheme, which was announced in November 1994. The Government office registered a strong interest with the Highways Agency in maintaining the integrity of the Broadmoor Farm site following the earlier public consultations on the preferred route. As my hon. Friend is aware, my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads agreed to adjust the preferred route to avoid bisecting the Broadmoor Farm site after full discussion with local authorities and landowners' agents—[Interruption.] From the noises behind me, it appears that my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East accepts that that was a helpful response.
The Highways Agency considers that it has had useful discussions with all parties involved, and it intends to continue those meetings as the A38 improvement scheme progresses through the next design stage towards publishing draft line and side road orders. That will enable the agency to remain aware of both the local planning authority's and the developer's plans as they are formulated. Such decisions will provide scope for modifying the design of the trunk road through negotiation, where appropriate.
Although the timing and progress of the A38 improvement is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, I am aware that those matters can be affected positively where there is the prospect of a contribution from developers towards the cost of the scheme.
I should now like to refer to more recent events. Last autumn, the principal landowner, W. H. Bond and Sons, submitted a planning application to Caradon district council to develop 260 acres of the 450-acre Broadmoor Farm site. In January this year, Caradon submitted its outline planning application for 395 acres of land within the site. After careful consideration, on 5 April I authorised the Government office to issue a direction under article 14 of the Town and Country Planning Act General Development Order 1988. That direction requires Caradon district council to submit to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment any planning application that it proposes to approve affecting land within the defined site. I informed my hon. Friend of that action at that time and of the reasons for it, which he and the council accept.
The House will appreciate that I must be extremely cautious in my remarks, lest I inadvertently prejudice any future planning application in that locality, determination of which falls to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.
The article 14 direction leaves Caradon district council free to consider all planning applications and to reach its conclusions on them. The standing direction relates to the site and remains in force until it is removed. It is necessary to allow my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to consider the wider national and regional implications of any planning applications and whether he should call them in for his own determination.
In parallel with the action by my Department, the Highways Agency has been considering the implications of the current planning applications for the trunk road network in the vicinity of Broadmoor Farm.
In December 1994, the Highways Agency was consulted by Caradon district council on the planning application by W. H. Bond and Sons and the accompanying traffic impact assessment. As the development would have a significant impact on the existing highway network, the Highways Agency commissioned consultants to evaluate the traffic impact assessment, including the likely impact on the trunk road capacity and safety of the traffic that would be generated by the proposed development.
On 25 January, the Highways Agency sent its preliminary views to the director of planning services at Caradon district council. It explained—I think that my hon. Friend will accept this—that the development would cause severe capacity problems at the A38 Carkeel roundabout, and that it was unlikely that any worthwhile increase in peak-hour capacity could be achieved without some form of grade-separated junction, as proposed in the A38 Saltash to Trerulefoot improvement scheme.
In early February, the Highways Agency also met the developer's consultants, who agreed to provide more detailed information on the traffic that would be generated by the proposed development.
On 14 March, Caradon district council consulted the Highways Agency about its planning application for 160 hectares. That development relied on the proposed A38 and A388 road improvements for access and the availability of sufficient road capacity.
In relation to both planning applications, the Highways Agency considered carefully whether the trunk road interests could be adequately protected by requiring planning conditions to be attached to the planning consents sought. Its legal advice, consistent with the guidance given in Department of the Environment circular 1/85, is that any condition which the Highways Agency devised would be invalid. That follows the uncertainties associated with the statutory authorisation and execution of the proposed A38 road improvements. Any conditional consent granted now would be incapable of implementation by the applicant within the normal period of the planning consent.
Consequently, the Highways Agency came to the view that the Broadmoor Farm development applications were premature pending publication of draft orders for the A38 Saltash to Trerulefoot improvement and a detailed assessment of the development's traffic impact. That left the agency with no option other than to direct refusal on grounds of prematurity. The notifications were issued on 21 April. A few days later, the county surveyor of Cornwall county council, as the local highways authority, similarly advised refusal of the applications for the same reasons.
The Highways Agency would have been neglecting its responsibilities for the trunk road network if it had not acted and had left my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment to call in the applications because of their trunk road implications. Such a course of action would also have involved all parties in the unnecessary expense of a public inquiry.
The Highways Agency has made it clear that it has no objection in principle to development at that location, subject to the satisfactory resolution of the highway issues, and that it appreciates the wider economic and social importance of the potential development site. I am aware that my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads has recently and urgently reviewed the circumstances in which the Highways Agency issued directions to Caradon district council relating to the proposed development at Broadmoor Farm. Furthermore, he has been stimulated to put in hand urgent arrangements for a meeting which will involve him and my hon. Friend, along with the developers, the district council and the Highways Agency to explore the possibilities.
It is worth explaining the importance of the site and the concern to bring work and industry of national importance to the area. The Government are seriously concerned. There have been long discussions, perhaps not at public meetings but certainly between officials of the various agencies and the council. Although the notice was short, it should have been foreseen. Nevertheless, the fact that a Transport Minister is calling a meeting with all parties will stimulate a faster and more positive response. The reason for that is that the Government are concerned to secure the long-term prosperity of that important sub-region, of which the site is an important part.
We must recognise the importance of attracting new investment to help to diversify and revive the economy in the area, which, as my hon. Friend said, has been badly affected by the rundown of the defence industry. It is worth touching on some of the constructive things that we are doing to approach the problem.
Before my hon. Friend refers to the generality, I should like to concentrate his mind again on the Broadmoor site—I could have written nine tenths of his speech. Clearly, the Department of the Environment fully supported what we are trying to do locally in the partnership between the private sector and the public sector.
I want an assurance from my hon. Friend. If the Highways Agency will not withdraw the direction to refuse, it must accept that the development in principle at Broadmoor may proceed before the A30 trunk road improvement scheme, provided the necessary arrangements are made to meet increased traffic flows—at the Carkeel roundabout matter in particular—so that the road structure can accommodate the increased flows during the interim period. That is what I am asking.
I thank my hon. Friend for what seems to be an eminently sensible approach. I hope that we can persuade my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads constructively to use the meeting to see whether he, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, the developers, the district council and the Highways Agency could improve the chances of speeding up the development of that important site.
It is clear that planning approval for substantial developments on the site depends on the development and improvement of the main roads highway. It turns on the successful completion of the statutory procedures and the availability of finance. However, I do not see why we cannot expect, as a result of the meeting, a constructive approach from all parties in an attempt to ensure that this key site is used for the benefit of industry in the area—although, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, its national economic importance must also be recognised.