Orders of the Day — Long Ashton (Green Belt)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:50 pm on 10th November 1999.

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Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Health 11:50 pm, 10th November 1999

After a debate as momentous as this evening's, when we ended 800 years of our history with the imposition of a halfway house of yes-men placed by the Prime Minister, a debate on greenbelt land in a small village in Somerset may seem inconsequential. However, it is not only of great importance to people who live in the village but a classic example of what is happening up and down this land, where local residents living in rural communities are battling against often inappropriate developments.

I do not expect hon. Members to know where Long Ashton is, but, for those who are interested, it lies south of Bristol in the north of my constituency, in north Somerset. The village has a treasured mediaeval history and a strong local identity. Although it lies closer to Bristol than any other village in my constituency, it is definitely part of north Somerset.

Woodspring is not a not-in-my-backyard constituency. It has taken more of than its share of development in recent years. The towns of Clevedon, Nailsea and Portishead have all taken large expanses of new house building because we recognise that new houses need to be built and that people need to live somewhere. In particular, those who have grown up in local communities need some continuity through the availability of housing in those places. A recent example of how people feel let down is the development in East Portishead, which was supposedly going to take the housing allocation for that part of north Somerset. It is not yet complete, but new large-scale house building developments are proposed without any other local infrastructure being provided.

The development that I am discussing tonight lies south of the Long Ashton road, on a hillside overlooking the Long Ashton bypass. Anyone who has taken that road south of Bristol will know that the village is set on a large expanse of hillside green belt which would disappear under the development. Six previous inquiries have given reasoned argument against building houses on this greenfield site. We believe that the inspector in the most recent inquiry took a cavalier approach to the development. Many believe that we are witnessing the rape of the rural south-west and that developers will not be happy until large parts of the rural south-west are concreted over and an urban conurbation running from the southern border of Bristol to Weston-super-Mare and the sea is created.

Several general questions arise. First, many suspect, in my constituency and well beyond, that the dice are loaded too heavily in favour of the developers. When inquiry after inquiry has found in favour of local residents, it takes only one to find in favour of the developers, and the land is gone for ever. The local residents have to fight on and on and on, but the developers have to be lucky only once. That is not a party political point but something that is felt up and down the country in constituencies represented by hon. Members of all parties. There is a problem of local accountability because the developers seem to have everything stacked in their favour.

There is a second democratic question to be answered. Given that the local Member of Parliament, the district councillor, the district council, the local councillors, teachers, doctors, environmentalists, parents—in fact, everyone involved in the local community—oppose the development, how can an inspector who has no links with the area, no understanding of the area and no share in its values come in after so many inquiries have taken place, adopt the contrary view and suddenly decide that the green land is to disappear for ever? The Minister who is to reply to the debate wrote to me, saying: I appreciate that this outcome may disappoint you and a number of your constituents, but I can assure you that the decision to grant planning permission was taken only after the most careful consideration of the evidence submitted by the interested parties. Every single interested party—other than the developers, of course—opposed the development, so the final outcome appears to reflect a strange balance of the interests.

The policies of Governments past and present dictate that no development should take place in the sort of green rural area represented by the site in question. Apart from the obvious destruction of a valuable amenity, the fact that certain specific principles of housing have been ignored causes great concern. Like us, the Government believe that new houses and jobs should be created together. The development in Long Ashton would simply increase commuter traffic to Bristol; there are already long queues out of the village at peak times. There are no alternative routes and more commuters will make matters far worse.

That goes against present Government policy and is to the detriment, not only of the local community, but of the Bristol highways authority, which is desperately trying to reduce traffic entering the city. Brownfield sites in Bristol should be used for residential development, rather than for increasing office premises, because there are already far too many people travelling in and out of Bristol each day. Modern electronic communications mean that there is no need for offices to be located close to each other. In addition, although any development should be designed to maintain, as far as is possible, the traditional characteristics of the local community, the development in question threatens Long Ashton in a way that is utterly inconsistent with that principle.

We have been dealt a second blow: not only has the development that will result in the destruction of a large area of the green land surrounding the village been given the go-ahead, but we have learned that the Long Ashton research station is to be closed. We discovered that, not in the normal way through a statement being made, but via a press release and a letter from Lord Sainsbury dated 5 August. He writes: As you know, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council…have been reviewing the future development of the Institute of Arable Crops Research, of which the Long Ashton Research Station forms part, and it has reached the conclusion detailed in the enclosed press release.This involves concentration of research and investment at the Rothamsted site"— in Hertfordshire— and phased withdrawal from Long Ashton, with the transfer of some of the staff and work to Rothamsted. In an example of hand washing that makes Pontius Pilate look like an amateur, Lord Sainsbury adds: The BBSRC Council is responsible for its own decisions on the structure, development and operation of its Institutes. This responsibility flows from the Council's Royal Charter…As 1 explained when we met"— I did indeed meet the Minister— I am satisfied that, on this occasion also, any decision on restructuring must remain properly with the council. The village faces major problems as a result of that decision. Unemployment will be created and a valuable source of income to the local economy will disappear. The phased withdrawal, which the Minister suggests will take place over three years, will allow not the sudden transfer of the expertise that he claims is sought, but cherry picking of the best staff, with those who do not want to transfer from north Somerset to Hertfordshire disappearing into the private sector, as has already occurred to a large extent. The closure will also mean a diminution of the research and development base in the south-west.

In addition, the planning decision that I have already set out must make it more likely that land currently controlled by the research station will become available for house building. The university of Bristol, which owns the land, will see an increase in the value of that land, and the financial constraints under which the university labours will make its sale to developers all the more likely.

Those are bad precedents to set for the village, but there are others also. The development in Long Ashton and the potential development of the research station land—which is quite extensive—must set precedents for further building applications in that transport corridor. It must mean that villages such as Backwell, Yatton and Wrington will be vulnerable to the same sort of planning application that has been granted in Long Ashton. My constituents and I are filled with horror when we consider how much of our green land could be lost. The prospect of becoming a single urban conurbation is indeed a horror story.

I would like the Minister to address several specific questions this evening. The Secretary of State will make this decision, as the Minister stated in her letter. How is this application different from the six previous applications that were turned down by the inspector, and therefore by the Secretary of State? What measures will the Government take to protect such greenfield sites in future?

There is a fear in the countryside that we have an urban-dominated Administration who do not care for the countryside. Perhaps most importantly, can the Minister explain the calculation of the housing numbers on which such developments are based? What figures do the civil servants—who no doubt retire to their homes in the home counties and do not have to consider the impact of developments—use to arrive at the numbers? It is a great mystery how the vast numbers of houses are calculated. Why do we need so many new houses and why must they be located in the south-west?

We have made our plans clear: we believe in having a green gap in each town where building of this sort cannot take place. That approach contrasts starkly with recent ministerial and inspectors' decisions. My constituent, Mr. Barnes of Well Close in Long Ashton, put it well when he wrote: After 30 years of the villagers trying to protect OUR GREEN VALLEY I was shocked to learn"— that the Secretary of State— agreed with the decision…to recommend building on this land 100 houses. He has totally disregarded the SIX previous Inspectors' decisions. The Council, Parish Council and the people do not allow Building in this Green Valley. This will set a precedent of Building on Green Field sites in North Somerset. This also comes on the back of another Government Office Decision to Close the only major employer in Long Ashton…with the loss of 220 jobs. It is a major blow for this village. When the Minister says that the inspector will submit a report and recommendations to the Secretary of State with whom the final decision will rest, we know that accountability lies with the Minister and her superiors.

Under this Government, a prosperous village is facing rising unemployment, the destruction of its green fields, the building of houses with no infrastructure, more cars, more pollution, more congestion and problems with road safety. The matter lies in the hands of the Secretary of State. The only conclusion that we can draw is that those who make the decisions do not know the area under consideration, the local circumstances or the problems that local people face. They do not understand the problems that people in Long Ashton face, but—perhaps most importantly—we believe that they do not care.