Green Belt (Sutton Coldfield)

– in the House of Commons at 1:54 am on 4 February 1998.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dowd.]

Photo of Brian Jenkins Brian Jenkins Labour, Tamworth

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance and ruling on whether this Adjournment debate should be allowed to proceed. The right hon. Member who has been awarded the privilege of this debate is none other than the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who is the official spokesperson for the Opposition. He is a Front-Bench spokesman, and at any time he can put his views at the Dispatch Box. In fact, he did so fairly recently.

The Opposition day motion on 27 January 1998 was on the protection of the countryside. Although the right hon. Gentleman did not make a speech in that debate, he intervened and mentioned the item that is under discussion tonight, so he had the opportunity to pursue this matter just over a week ago.

Will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as the defender and guardian of the rights of Back Benchers, rule that this debate is inappropriate? We saw earlier the spectacle of a Front-Bench spokesman riding on the back of a Back Bencher's amendment. What is to prevent every Front-Bench spokesman, or even every Minister, from lining up and shutting out Back Benchers?

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point of order. There is no bar to Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen speaking from the Back Benches in an Adjournment debate. That is normal, and it is entirely up to them whether they speak on constituency interests or on other subjects.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

I deeply resent what the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) has just said. I also deeply resent the fact that he gave me no notice of his point of order. I am responding to what the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning said in a debate on regional development agencies in which I intervened. He told me that I should raise this matter as a constituency issue. He will confirm that.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

I hope that the hon. Member for Tamworth will accept that I have a right, just as he does, to speak for my constituents, and that is precisely what I intend to do.

I first raised the issue of the green belt in Sutton Coldfield in an Adjournment debate in May 1996. I pointed out the danger to the green belt from a proposed industrial development near Minworth in my constituency. That site on the edge of Sutton Coldfield and Birmingham is 150 acres of agricultural land in active use. There is nothing marginal about that land: it is undoubted agricultural land, and undoubted green-belt land.

In May 1996, during the previous Parliament, I asked for the application to develop that land to be called in, and for a public inquiry to be held. I wanted a proper determination of the case and of green-belt policy generally. I said that, if the Minworth site were developed, the future of the green-belt policy would be in severe doubt. I am glad to say that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), the former Secretary of State for the Environment, called in that application, and a public inquiry was duly held.

It is the events that have occurred since then that I want to draw to the House's attention. What has happened sounds a warning for everyone who is interested in the future of the green belt and the protection of the countryside.

I shall summarise the history of the scheme. It centres on the efforts of the West Midlands development agency—which seeks to encourage inward investment—and the Department of Trade and Industry to persuade Philips to site a micro-electronics factory in this country. Philips was known to be examining the prospects of such a factory, and a joint effort was made to bring it to the west midlands.

There is no doubt that Philips was the intended user of the site. That was made clear to me in discussions in which I engaged in 1996 with both officials and Ministers in the Department of Trade and Industry. The question was not that; the question was where the factory should go.

It was at that point that Birmingham city council came into the story. The council owned the majority of the Minworth site. If it could sell the site, it would make a substantial capital gain—probably £30 million or £40 million. The council thus had a direct financial interest in developing the land, and all the evidence suggests that it used its power to ensure that the Minworth site was chosen. It was in a strong position: it not only owned the site, but was the planning authority.

At the time of my earlier Adjournment debate, there were two possible sites. One was owned by P and 0, and one by Birmingham city council. The councillors in Sutton Coldfield, local residents and I were opposed to both. The council, however, used all its power to ensure that the site that it owned was chosen.

According to the evidence given at the public inquiry, the council, as the local planning authority, made no serious attempt to carry out a comprehensive comparative evaluation of the two sites, and consistently applied double standards in favour of its own land. Nevertheless, even the council was unable to force the proposal through without a public inquiry once my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State had acted.

We proceeded to the public inquiry. The West Midlands development agency was represented by a Queen's counsel and a legal team. P and 0 was represented by a QC and a legal team. Birmingham city council was represented by counsel and a legal team. PowerGen, which was putting forward an alternative site, was represented by a QC and a legal team.

The only group that had no legal representation were the residents of Sutton Coldfield. The residents, the councillors and I appeared without the benefit of those expert legal teams. Nevertheless, when it came to the inspector's recommendation to the Secretary of State, he recommended that planning permission be refused on both sites where permission was being sought. In normal circumstances, that would have meant that the 150-acre site was saved.

The inspector heard all the arguments about the green belt. I pay tribute to the thoroughness of the inquiry. He heard all the arguments about the damage to the countryside; indeed, he said that the development would lead to considerable and severe harm to the green belt in physical, visual and functional terms. He also considered all the arguments that were advanced about the employment consequences of a possible development—although it must be said that I regard some of those claims as totally fanciful.

There was one argument, however, that even the inspector was unable to examine. Although the whole aim was to attract Philips to the site, the company itself refused to allow its name to be attached to the application. That meant that no questions could be asked about the siting of the factory or, indeed, about the urgency of the issue. Government guidance is that any green-belt development should not be approved other than in exceptional circumstances. Without the end user, it was impossible to tell whether such circumstances applied. Philips was therefore unwilling to become involved in the controversy surrounding the site.

That decision had one other profound effect, because, to all intents and purposes, the application became speculative. There was no named end user. The duty on the inspector was to decide whether, exceptionally, a factory of the kind proposed should be sited in the green belt.

The inspector's finding was unequivocal. Both proposals, the one by P and O and that by the West Midlands development agency were rejected. He said that they would have resulted in a substantial loss of the best and most versatile agricultural land. That independent inspector stated:

In the absence of compelling reasons for making an exception to national policies for protecting land as a national resource, both proposals are unacceptable. In normal circumstances, that would have been the end of the matter. Accordingly, the inspector recommended that, in both cases, planning permission should be refused. The inspector, Mr. C. H. Johnson, presented his report to my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for the Environment in April 1997 in the midst of the election campaign. Entirely correctly, it was left until the outcome of the election was known for the new Secretary of State to make a decision.

I now come to one of the most disturbing parts of the whole story. Although the report was with Ministers from the day the new Government took office, no statement was made about it in the Session to the end of July. The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning, who will reply to the debate, announced the Government's decision not when Parliament was sitting but a week into the summer recess, on Friday 7 August. That must rank as one of the crudest attempts we have known to manipulate the press and to slip out what was recognised as a controversial statement. I have contempt for those tactics.

It was not just the crude attempt to fix that is so objectionable. The Minister's timing meant more than that. It meant that much of the 42-day period in which residents had to consider an appeal to the courts for a judicial review occurred in the middle of the holiday period, when it was difficult to get people together. No one should have worried, because the potential cost of raising a challenge in the courts for a judicial review, which would not in any event have reversed the position, is prohibitive. If we could not afford legal advice in the first place, it was unlikely that we could have afforded the cost of seeking a judicial review.

That is the story of how permission was granted for the development of the site and how it was announced. It is not a story from which any of the major players can take pride. At times, there was a shabby and discreditable effort to override the will of local people, and the views that have been expressed on the matter are clear. One of my constituents, whom I saw at the weekend, has written to me. He states: I have been a Labour voter for 15 years, not least because I have a strong social conscience. However, this same conscience has been alarmed by the events of the last two years … Minworth lies within Sutton Coldfield. However, in no way could the village be described as being affluent! My constituent made a further point: Birmingham claims that the main reason for supporting Peddimore is the economic diversification it would bring—and yet we learnt from PowerGen at the Public Inquiry that it was first offered to Rover/BMW (bidding against Hams Hall). It was not for Micro Electronics.

The Warwickshire branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England stated: We write to express our strong opposition to, and disappointment at, your decision to allow the planning application … This decision sends a signal to developers, local councils with land the wish to develop, and the Quangos set up to promote regional economic development that Green Belt land around cities can be released for development. There are many other letters of the same sort, but I do not have time to quote from them.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

I will not give way, I am sorry.

As it happens, no developer has yet come forward; Philips has not, and nor has anyone else. Nevertheless, the permission stands. The inspector's recommendation that, if there were any prospect of permission being given, it should be time limited, was again rejected by the Government.

Basically, therefore, 150 acres of green-belt land are to be destroyed, but the prospect is that that will not be an end to the process. The council, which both owns the land and is the planning authority, will make further proposals. Unless we are careful, there will be a step-by-step domino destruction of the green belt around Sutton Coldfield. Of that there is very little doubt.

What are the lessons of the Government decision? The first is that, although this happened in Sutton Coldfield, it could happen anywhere. As the law stands, the Secretary of State is the final judge and jury in such a case. This Secretary of State talks about the importance of the green belt, but it is deeds, not words, that matter, and this decision brings his position into considerable doubt.

There is a further point. In many ways, the West Midlands development agency is the forerunner of the new regional development agencies, which the Government are setting up. RDAs will also be called on and expected to put together land that can be used for inward investment projects. Like the West Midlands development agency, RDAs are not accountable locally to electors; they are not elected bodies.

Over the coming months and years, other green-belt sites will be put forward, and who is the Minister responsible for regional development agencies? It is, of course, the Minister who is also responsible for planning decisions: the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. He is to be judge and jury in his own cause. That raises matters of great concern: constitutional, legal and political concern. We—and, I hope, others—will want to return to the issue.

The die has been cast for the Minworth site. The decision has been taken. The green belt is to be destroyed. It is an act of vandalism. The responsibility lies first with Birmingham council, but, above all, with the Government, who have rejected the independent inspector's report. It seems pointless to have such inquiries, to ask learned and expert people to act as planning inspectors, to take evidence and to cover the whole area, if the Secretary of State simply rejects the inspector's recommendation; but that is precisely what has happened in this case.

The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning has accused me of being passionate about the green belt. That is true, but I am also passionate about justice, and I do not believe that justice has been remotely done. I deplore many of the individual actions that have been taken in this case, but, above all, I deplore the decision. In the light of this evidence, I do not see how anyone can trust this Government to preserve either the green belt or the countryside.

Photo of Richard Caborn Richard Caborn Minister of State (Regions, Regeneration and Planning), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions 2:28, 4 February 1998

I remind the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) that the powers that we will give to regional development agencies will be those that were invested in English Partnerships. Indeed, his Administration, when he was a member of it, gave English Partnerships those powers. It was accountable to the Secretary of State for the Environment; there is no difference.

The right hon. Gentleman has reminded us that he raised his constituency green-belt concerns in an Adjournment debate on 8 May 1996. I have taken the trouble to read what he said, and to remind myself of what the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford), as the Minister replying for the Government of the day, said in response. He referred in particular to the national planning policy framework for the green belt: planning policy guidance note 2. He also drew attention to the framework of regional planning guidance in RPG11.

I stress two points. The current national policy framework for the green belt is the one put in place by the Conservative party when it was in government, and the regional planning framework is also that put in place by the Conservative party. We inherited that framework. We have already announced some of our proposals for modernising the planning system and strengthening the regional planning guidance in particular. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will be making further announcements in the near future.

We are moving things forward and addressing the issues, but we cannot indulge in the "If I were you, I wouldn't start from here" approach. We have to start with what we inherited, and that means taking decisions in accordance with the framework that we inherited. We have done just that. If the right hon. Gentleman did not like the framework, what did he do about it when his party was in government?

As I said, we inherited the green-belt policy from the previous Administration. We are accused of weakening it. Let me make it clear that we have no such intention. Our policy is as set out in PPG note 2 of January 1985. There is a general presumption against inappropriate development in the green belt. Inappropriate development is justified only if there are very special circumstances whereby the benefits of the proposed development outweigh the harm that could be done to the green belt. We attach great weight to any changes to the green belt which inappropriate development might cause.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the particular issue of the decision last August to grant permission for a major inward investment site at Peddimore in his constituency. The reasons for the decision taken on the Peddimore case were set out fully in the decision letter dated 7 August 1997 to which he referred. This followed a full public inquiry into the proposals and a very careful consideration of the inspector's report.

The background to the Peddimore decision is RPG11— issued, I remind the House, by the previous Government—which recognised that the lack of sites for major inward investment was holding back economic development in the west midlands. RPG 11 recommended that up to two large major investment sites should be provided. Following publication of RPG11, a joint study by the West Midlands Regional Forum of Local Authorities concluded that no brown-field site of suitable size was available in the region. The study identified the Minworth area, where Peddimore is located, as one of two priority areas in the region for locating major industrial inward investment.

The right hon. Gentleman makes much of the fact that we disagreed with the inspector's recommendation to refuse the application. This was a case where a balance had to be struck between economic prosperity and harm to the countryside. Our decision letter acknowledged the serious changes that the development would cause to the green belt, but we gave greater weight than did the inspector to the region's need for inward investment sites, as identified in RPG11, and to the potential economic benefits that a micro-electronics fabrication plant would bring.

The right hon. Gentleman also tried to make much of what he calls the speculative nature of the development proposal, but I think he is missing the point. The permission at Peddimore is tightly conditioned. It is for a micro-electronics fabrication plant. It does not create a precedent for any other type of development on the green belt at Peddimore. If the proposed development does not go ahead, the site will remain undeveloped green-belt land. If, on the other hand, proposals are made for alternative development, they will have to go through the planning process and be considered on their merits. I stress that point. So the conditions for the Peddimore site are very tightly drawn.

I understand people's concern about the green belt and the implications of new developments. These cases involve taking hard decisions. In this case, we were satisfied that the potential benefits outweighed the potential harm.

The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has consistently opposed the proposed development at Peddimore, but I imagine that he would be the first to welcome the jobs and wealth created in his constituency if the proposed development went ahead.

Let me make another observation. The right hon. Gentleman has told us how much opposition there is to the decision. We have heard about petitions to No. 10, and about his doubts. He even wants to change the law so that people can appeal against the Secretary of State's decision. In the statutory six-week period after the decision, neither he nor anyone else exercised their right to challenge it in the High Court.

Photo of Richard Caborn Richard Caborn Minister of State (Regions, Regeneration and Planning), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

I want to get everything on the record. It is right that the right hon. Gentleman's constituents should hear the other side of the argument, probably through Hansard.

The right hon. Gentleman has referred to pressure on the green belt boundary in his constituency. Let me remind the House what the policy is and what RPG 11 has to say on the matter.

Green belts are established by local authorities through development plans. Once established, it is the Government's policy they should be altered only in exceptional circumstances. Ensuring that green belt boundaries endure will mean in some cases safeguarding land between the urban area and the green belt, which may be required to meet longer-term development needs.

Regional policy guidance for the west Midlands—RPG11—published in September 1995, acknowledged that there was no case for a fundamental review of the green belts, and that, in parts of the region, detailed green belt boundaries defined in development plans were well founded and made adequate provision for development, immediately and in the longer term.

The guidance confirmed that in many cases boundaries remain too tightly drawn around built-up areas". It went on to say: the tight green belt boundaries around the metropolitan area … may diminish the value of local plans for making proper provision for necessary development in the future. In some locations where boundaries are tightly drawn and where development can significantly contribute to the objective of reducing the need to travel boundaries are likely exceptionally to need redrawing to make adequate provision for longer-term development. Those are not my words; they are in RPG11, issued by the previous Government. Did the right hon. Gentleman agree with those conclusions at the time?

Birmingham and other metropolitan authorities in the west midlands are reviewing their unitary development plans. It is important that they take a suitably strategic view of long-term development needs and green belt boundaries, to ensure that any necessary new development is in the most sustainable locations.

It is easy for Opposition Members to criticise the hard decisions that a Government often have to make. However, it is surprising when they criticise decisions that reflect documents and guidance that they issued when in government.

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern for his constituency, but our decision should ensure jobs for his constituents and for people across a wider area. In paving the way for economic benefits to flow into the region, we have weighed carefully the implications for the green belt, as we always will. The presumption against inappropriate development in the green belt will remain as strong as ever, as will our determination to face difficult decisions, which we believe is necessary in government. We shall not shy away from them.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

The hon. Gentleman has a few minutes before the end of the debate. Will he answer at least one question that I tried to ask in an intervention? He suggested that the lack of a legal challenge from my constituents and me invalidated our argument. Surely he understands that we were advised that getting a judicial review would probably cost about £40,000 or £50,000. It is not unreasonable for residents to decide that they cannot raise such a sum. That does not reflect on their strength of feeling.

The Minister had the inspector's report from May, when the Government came to office. Why did he wait until a week after the House went into recess before announcing his decision?

Photo of Richard Caborn Richard Caborn Minister of State (Regions, Regeneration and Planning), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

I understand why no legal challenge was mounted during the six-week period. However, the right hon. Gentleman never challenged RPG11—the foundation of the policy—when it was being debated in the normal channels of putting together the strategic overview for the region. It was made clear that there were no brown-field sites in the area. The two sites chosen were clearly identified then. It is incumbent on the right hon. Gentleman to explain why he did not object at the time.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked about the inspector's report. I hope that I have some integrity in the House. We could not just make the decision on 7 May. When we came to government after 18 years in opposition, we had to find our feet.

I apologise if the right hon. Gentleman believes that our timing was planned to manipulate the situation. It was not. We had a lot of planning decisions to make. The processes of government had slowed down during the run-up to the election. We worked very hard from early May, when we came into office, through the summer. I apologise if the right hon. Gentleman was offended, but we had no ulterior motive. I shall defend any of my ministerial decisions at the Dispatch Box.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Three o'clock.