I heard the hon. Gentleman's contention that there had been six previous occasions on which different conclusions were drawn. If he knows the detailed, complex history of the various decisions and appeals relating to this site, he will know that his question is not straightforward. At least one decision by an inspector was overturned because throughout the inquiry he wrongly assumed that the land was greenbelt land. His decision was subsequently quashed by a court. The decision-making in this case has a tortuous history, and I shall go over that in a moment.
First, however, in the case of the Long Ashton appeal, I cannot comment on the merit of the specific planning decision because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the Secretary of State has made his decision not to overturn the inspector's decision, and there follows a six-week period in which aggrieved parties can make application to the High Court. I cannot prejudice the position of the Secretary of State or any other party because we are still within that six-week period, which ends on 17 November.
I want to make general remarks about greenbelt policy, which was at the heart of the hon. Gentleman's criticism, because the debate is about greenbelt land at Long Ashton. It is very important first to stress that the land to which the hon. Gentleman referred does not have greenbelt status. However, before I say what status it has, which is germane to the issue, I want to restate our policy on green belts.
We remain firm in our commitment to green belts. I confirmed that in an Opposition day debate as recently as 2 November. Green belts are meant to remain open for as far ahead as we can reasonably foresee, and there should be a strong presumption against inappropriate development in them. That does not mean, however, that development cannot take place in green belts. It means that inappropriate development can take place only where very special circumstances exist, and we take that policy very seriously.
As I said, the Government remain committed to their policy on green belts, but it has always been open to local authorities, if they wish, to propose changes to greenbelt boundaries, and that has been attempted in relation to the land at Long Ashton on two occasions. However, such changes must be exceptional; they should take place only after rigorous examination of all the options. Furthermore, they should be open to full public consultation.
If it is proposed to add land to existing green belt—as has been twice attempted on the site referred to by the hon. Gentleman—it must form part of the development plan process. The onus is on the local authority to show that one of the five purposes of including land in green belts has been met. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, those purposes are to stop urban sprawl, to prevent neighbouring towns from merging, to help safeguard the countryside from encroachment, to preserve the setting and character of historic towns and to encourage the recycling of urban land.
There has been no change in that policy; it remains the same as that of the previous Administration in PPG2, published in 1995. However, not only is the piece of land that we are discussing not greenbelt land, it has yet another status. In the plan, it is earmarked as safeguarded or white land. White land is not covered by greenbelt status; it is land between the urban area and the green belt that may be required to meet longer-term development needs. The purpose of white land is to help safeguard the green belt—that is most important—by providing a reserve of land that could be built on in future, thus avoiding taking land out of the green belt. Safeguarded land does not mean that land so designated is being safeguarded for future addition to the green belt. Quite the contrary—safeguarded land can be built on in future so as to preserve adjacent greenbelt land. That is the status of that piece of land in the plan.
The Long Ashton site is not in the green belt; it was excluded in 1966. Although there have been two attempts since then to include the site in the green belt, both were quashed by the courts. When the hon. Gentleman says that decisions have been taken time after time to include the land in the green belt, that is not true.
The Woodspring local plan was put on deposit in 1995. That was the first attempt to include the land in the green belt. On behalf of the Secretary of State, the Government office of the south-west objected to that proposal, because the council had not shown the exceptional circumstances required to remove the land from its white land status into the green belt. At the public inquiry held to hear objections, the council accepted that it could not justify the change. The inquiry inspector—who is independent—concluded that there was no compelling case for a departure from national policy so as to include the land in the green belt.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, North Somerset council, the successor authority to Woodspring district council, decided not to accept the inspector's recommendation. The council's proposed modifications, published in June this year, did not allocate the site for housing—as the inspector had most recently recommended—and proposed extension of the green belt around the site. In its response to the inspector's report, the council again stated that it could not identify any exceptional circumstances to justify the proposed extension to the green belt. That is why the Government office of the south-west objected to the council's decision not to accept the inspector's recommendation; the office again pointed to the council's failure to identify exceptional circumstances.
The council is still considering its response to that objection. I understand that it is likely to publish further modifications to the plan in the near future, but I cannot speculate on that matter. As I do not know what the council will propose, I cannot say what the Secretary of State's response might be.
I have spoken at length about the history of the land at Long Ashton. I apologise to the House for that, because it is a complex matter. However, we need to understand that complex history in the light of the hon. Gentleman's contentions as to what is happening at Long Ashton. That history sets the context for the Secretary of State's view on the local plan, and explains the relationship between the site and the green belt. The site remains outside the green belt because there has been no change to the boundary. It still has the status of white land—a protection for the green belt as land on which development is always possible.
The Government are committed to protecting the green belt. We are committed to taking into account all the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises on housing, housing need, transport and infrastructure in considering development. That is firmly our policy.
As the hon. Gentleman said, he has written very recently to the Secretary of State, raising concerns about the draft planning guidance for the south-west. He raised points about the housing numbers that might be included in that.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman says that civil servants produce the figures to which he is objecting. The conference of planning authorities produced the original figures that will be considered by an independent panel in March. The Secretary of State will ultimately make a decision on those figures when he approves regional planning guidance. At the moment, the figures that he sees have nothing to do with civil servants. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not know more about the process. Draft regional planning guidance will be considered at a public examination in the spring, so 1 cannot comment further on it now.
The Government remain committed to the green belt as a means of protecting our countryside. We share the hon. Gentleman's concern about all the factors that need to be taken into account in considering development. Protection of the green belt remains as strong as ever. As I said last week, our record on that in the past two years has been much better than that of his Government over the previous 10 years, during which green belt was lost every year.
Although some commentators choose to emphasise development proposals that might threaten the green belt, as the hon. Gentleman has, the truth is that it is beginning to expand under this Government. Adopted green belts now cover 12 per cent. of England, which is more than double the figure some 20 years ago.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises the importance that we place on achieving sustainable development and making sensible decisions about housing development. Within that, we shall protect the green belt as far as we possibly can, consistent with the objectives of sustainable development and of meeting the wide variety of needs of people living and working in an area.