I must draw the House's attention to the fact that privilege is involved in Lords amendments Nos. 25, 65, 76, 100, 109 and 117 to 163. If the House agrees to any of these amendments, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.
After Clause 194
Lords amendment: No. 115.
I beg to move, That this House
disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
It is a pleasure to see Opposition Front Benchers back in their places for the debates on the Bill as it moves into its final stages. We are missing Dan Rogerson, who is at home after the birth of his third child. He is hardly old enough to have three children, but we wish him well—I understand that all is well.
Their Lordships have sent us an amendment to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to ensure that those who exercise planning functions have special regard to the preservation of gardens, groups of gardens or urban green spaces. I hope that I can explain to the House not only why the amendment should be rejected, but the steps that we propose to take to ensure that we examine properly the concerns that have been raised.
As my noble Friend Baroness Andrews said in the other place last week, and as was pointed out when this House debated the issue a couple of years ago, both on an Opposition motion and in relation to a Bill that Mrs. Spelman introduced—it is good to see her in her place, as she has long had an interest in such issues—local authorities can already set out strong and specific local policies in their local development frameworks to protect gardens in particular areas, if that is desirable and appropriate. In our planning policy statement 3, on housing, which was published in November 2006, we strengthened local authorities' hand in doing just that.
I am interested in what the Minister said about the regulations already being in place. When there are instances of garden grabbing in my constituency, Lichfield district council says that they are out of its hands. The council says that it is directed by regional policy and national policy guidance and has no choice but to allow gardens to be used for building, because they are regarded as brownfield sites. Is the Minister saying that the council and, more importantly, the National Association of Local Councils are wrong on that point?
I was in the middle of saying that if the hon. Gentleman encourages his local authority to look hard at PPS3—indeed, he might want to ask why the council has not seen it before—it will see that it can set individual brownfield targets that apply only to back gardens, effectively separating them from other derelict land and other forms of brownfield and vacant sites.
The Minister is being characteristically generous in giving way again. Notwithstanding PPS3 guidance, does he not acknowledge that many councils, including Castle Point, have given away far too many gardens in the dash for flats? We are seeing massive flat developments being built without any garden space at all, but these turn out to be unsaleable in the end, thereby destroying our urban communities.
I do not know in detail what the hon. Gentleman's council in Castle Point has done, and cannot speak for it. However, he might want to ask his local authority why it is not taking full advantage of the planning system, as some are, by making back gardens a special feature of its policy, as part of its ability to make finely graded distinctions in the general category of brownfield land.
In case the planners in west Berkshire are watching this, let me give vent to their feelings by asking the Minister this. If the planners refuse applications, as they frequently do, to build high-density units on gardens when such developments would be inappropriate in certain areas, they are then overrruled on appeal, with the inspector citing national policy. That is the problem right up and down the country. Is the Minister saying that I, the planners in west Berkshire and everybody who is experiencing that are wrong?
No, I am not. However, if councils use the scope of their existing powers to make it clear in their planning and housing objectives that back gardens should be treated in a particular way, they should expect their approach to command support should an appeal arise. The starting point is the extent to which local authorities choose to use the scope of the powers that are currently available to them.
If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the situation in West Berkshire, perhaps he should have a word with Mr. Pickles, who leads the Conservative Front-Bench team, because Brentwood's local plan is one of the best examples of a local authority taking advantage of the provisions and scope of the PPS3. It has specific policies that reflect local circumstances, such as that any new development should reflect the character and density of the surrounding area and should have minimum net plot sizes and minimum building-line frontages. So a council that recognises what it can do has set its policy framework accordingly. If concerns of this nature arise in that area, it should be able to deal with them much more effectively than other local authorities. The hon. Gentleman might suggest that West Berkshire take a leaf out of Brentwood council's book.
My council has been attempting to strengthen its language under the unitary development plan. Is the Minister aware that it has been told that the language is already as strong as it could possibly be, and that if it does anything more it will be overturned by the inspectorate, and the UDP will have to be revised? None of that has stopped developers running a guerrilla war, constantly attempting to buy every house with a sizeable garden in order to put massive and complex developments on them. Applications are often turned down on appeal, but developers will persist three, four or five times until the wretched developments eventually go through.
I have no idea what the precise wording of the hon. Lady's local planning policy framework is, and she has not quoted it, so I cannot give her a judgment on that. However, in a moment I shall come to the question in my mind about the nature of the evidence supporting the sort of concern that she has expressed. She has given an anecdotal example of a problem that she sees in her area. Let me make a little progress, and if she wants to come back to this point, I shall give way again.
On PPS3, does the Minister accept that it might be appropriate for councils to take case-by-case decisions on gardens, rather than to have blanket policies that cover the whole borough? Not every garden needs to be preserved in aspic. It might be appropriate to consider each application on its merits and to make decisions in that way. Nothing that the Minister has said allays our concerns as to whether any council that tried to do that would have its decisions overturned on appeal.
The principle and practice of the planning system are that each application is considered on its merits in the context and framework of planning policies set by the planning authority. Those policies are produced within the context of guidance that we give from the centre. There is already considerable scope within the system for local planning authorities to equip themselves, as part of their ambition in their planning policies, to deal with any concern about garden grabbing in their area, but most authorities are not fully using that scope. Local authorities have the power to turn down applications for inappropriate housing in back gardens. Provided that the supply of land is maintained and the proposed development is in line with a council's planning for housing objectives, it can resist garden development and can expect support on appeal.
Let me return to the issue of evidence. Unless the House hears this afternoon about fresh evidence that I have not come across, there is no clear evidence of a problem that needs the proposed solution. In the other place, the Opposition spokesperson talked about a survey of six local authorities, and I have tried hard to find details of that survey. I am not sure whether it has been published, but if it has, I have not been able to get a copy of it. On the basis of that survey, it has been said that 72 per cent. of all brownfield site development has been on back gardens, but that figure is way out of line with our published, comprehensive and publicly scrutinised figures for that sort of development. Our published figures on the amount of development on previously developed land show that the percentage of all new housing built on back gardens across England is not 72 per cent. but just under 27 per cent. There is huge inconsistency between those figures, but I have been unable to take a close look at the results of that small survey, because I cannot find a published copy of it.
One half of the amendment puts forward proposals to define green space as being separate from other brownfield land. Would that classification not make it easier to assess the amount of development on gardens and elsewhere?
But does the hon. Lady not accept the general proposition that legislation should be based on good policy, which, in turn, needs to be based on sound evidence? At the moment, that evidence is not clear, so the case for a change in policy, let alone a change in legislation, has not been established.
Will the Minister help us with the evidence that he mentions? He will understand that, within regional and national totals, different authorities will be higher or lower than the average. In the past three years, I have tabled parliamentary questions asking for specific figures for each local authority for the previous year. In the first two years, my questions were answered, but this year his Department has declined to give me that information because it said that it would be misleading. Will he put the information in the Library so that we can have a consistent series of answers?
I suspect that the answers that the hon. Gentleman has received so far have not been in my name, but I shall look into whether there is an inconsistency or concern about data for the most recent year compared with those for the two previous years. Either my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing or I will write to him on that.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether I could help regarding the evidence. I am trying to be as helpful as possible to the House, and I do not have a closed mind on this, but the evidence on which to base policy decisions, let alone legislative changes, is not yet clear or available. Early in the new year, we will review the evidence on the extent of development on back gardens in order to establish whether there is a genuine problem. If there is, we will take action to remedy the situation.
I thank the Minister for taking the positive approach of reviewing the problem. Will he consider the issues not only at national and regional level but at local level, because constituencies such as mine, where land is very valuable because houses are highly priced, are a particular target of developers? Looking at broad areas of the country, one might not find the problem, but if one looked at the specifics of some of my communities, one would find that developers bid at almost every opportunity when a single house with any reasonable amount of garden is being sold. My great fear is that in the recession, when many people will not have cash but developers will, a set of locusts will be going after all those opportunities.
The hon. Lady's question can be boiled down to asking whether our review will examine the evidence in local authority areas. Yes, of course it will.
I look forward to hearing from Mrs. Lait, because I am concerned that we too often see Tory councils and members of the Conservative party arguing about housing and housing numbers. That leads me to suspect, if I am honest with the House, that behind this amendment lies a serious rejection of our obligation to provide new housing for new generations. If the hon. Member for Beckenham can convince the House that that is not the case, I would welcome it, but too often the evidence from her own councils and her own colleagues has been to the contrary.
Before I leave the right hon. Gentleman to the tender mercies of my hon. Friend Mrs. Lait, can he help me on this matter? Given the Minister's surprising and uncharacteristic degree of cynicism, how does he square what he said with the statement of his ministerial colleague Baroness Andrews, who said in the other place:
"We support the underlying aim of the amendment."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 12 November 2008; Vol. 705, c. 694.]?
If the Government support the underlying aim, it cannot be logical to suggest that it comes from some motive to prevent excessive development.
I think scepticism rather than cynicism is a proper description of my attitude. As I am trying to explain, the Government do not have closed minds on this issue, but we are first looking for firm evidence that there is a problem to which we need a solution in the form of change in policy; and secondly, in the light of what I just said, I am making it clear that we would be prepared to change our policy only if we were convinced that that would not also undermine our objectives on housing.
On the question of evidence, I welcome the announcement that the Government will review the impact, but will the Minister take important facts into consideration? The 27 per cent. average national figure he cites for building on previously developed land disguises the fact that during the last few years, because of a boom in house prices, there has been a significant increase in the number of houses built. It is a combination not just of the percentage, but of the sheer numbers built on backland. My own local authority has seen a doubling of the number of houses built, as well as an increase in the percentage of building on formerly developed land. Perversely, where gardens exist, that has led to meeting housing targets in areas of high land value ahead of schedule. Solihull metropolitan borough council met its target for 2011 by 2006.
The hon. Lady is right, and it is a record that we have been proud of in recent years. From a low in 2001, we have reversed what had been a year-on-year decline in house building for 15 years before that. We are pleased and proud to see more houses built; we need more houses in this country. My response to Mrs. Spelman is that if the contribution of development on brownfield sites, which could include back gardens in some areas, is relatively stable, I fail to see the strength of the argument for saying that this is an urgent and pressing problem, particularly in the absence of any firm evidence to the contrary.
I give way first to Bob Spink because he has been in his place from the start of the debate. I will then give way to Mr. Redwood, who has just arrived. After that, I will give way to my hon. Friend Mr. Truswell.
The Minister mentioned housing targets, and I think that he was a little cynical about them. The evidence from my region in the Thames corridor is that there is sufficient brown land—previously developed land—available to meet all the Government's housing targets, but that it is has not stopped green land in my constituency coming under pressure. The reason for that is that developers can make a lot more money by developing back gardens and green land in my constituency. Will the Minister get the Government to focus on their target of protecting green belt, green land and back gardens by forcing development into the brown land in the Thames corridor?
I recognise the hon. Gentleman's point, so I invite him to submit evidence from his local area to the review that, as I have confirmed to the House, will start in the new year. That may or may not help to build up the evidence base on which consideration of any policy change could be considered.
As we have just heard a pre-Budget report that turned out to be a Budget with an urgent and big tax change, will the Minister give us guidance from the Treasury Bench on how soon we will be able to debate and vote on the huge VAT change? It is very unusual to have a Budget, yet not be able to proceed to a Division on it.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood none the less raises an important point on which I would like your guidance. We have effectively just had a massive Budget—bigger than many of the real Budgets through which I have sat over the past 25 years, all of which have been followed by five days' debate. Have you received any indication, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that there is to be a change in House business to allow us to debate that Budget, or is democracy at an end in this place?
Order. I can rule on the point of order, but bearing in mind that this is a time-limited debate, I am not sure that we would be well served by having an extensive series of points of order, which will only take out more of the time available to debate the important matter before the House.
Let me say this, which should be helpful to Angela Browning and Mr. Lilley: a point of order cannot be directed to the Minister. It can be directed only to the Chair, as I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman understands. He will know that the Chair cannot generally determine the House's business. Mr. Speaker will always carefully consider any requests for consideration of an urgent question or for an emergency debate. Those are the procedures that right hon. and hon. Members may follow to establish whether what they want the House to debate can be debated in the immediate future.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to you, but the point raised in the debate was about the 2.5 per cent. reduction in VAT. The point of having a full debate on the pre-Budget statement is that when the Chancellor mentioned the change, he admitted that he had opted for the 2.5 per cent. VAT measure in preference to a general tax reduction because it was a quicker way of getting it through this House. Under those circumstances and given the importance of that very statement, surely Mr. Speaker could assist my two right hon. Friends who have suggested holding a proper debate on the pre-Budget statement.
I am not sure that I can say anything fresh to the hon. Lady on that. Indeed, Mr. Speaker would consider any requests for a debate according to the usual criteria, but we cannot allow the egg to be greater than the chicken in this particular instance in that we are debating what we are debating and we have to conduct that debate against whatever the background of other circumstances we know about. We can have a debate about the effects of what the Chancellor announced in strict relation to the matter before the House now, which is what we should be doing now, rather than raising points of order. I have dealt on the point of order with the question whether a general debate should be held and I have tried to suggest a way forward for hon. Members.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wish to add only that as far as I am aware—I would be grateful for your assistance—no statement of this magnitude has ever been made in the House without being followed by a full debate. The pre-Budget statement was without doubt the most important financial statement that I have ever heard since joining the House in 1997. I know of no autumn statement that has not been followed by a debate, so I would be grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on how we can gain an opportunity to—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is expressing a point of view, which he is entitled to express. However, that does not alter my ruling on the point of order. I have tried to be helpful to hon. Members about how to proceed on the issue. We must now return to the debate.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and hope that we might gain some more time to debate planning. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the biggest problem is the unpredictability of decision making—by planning committees and inspectors at inquiries, for example? If he could issue guidance to ensure greater clarity of decision making, it could only help. The problem is that when a duff decision is made, precedent is everything; a whole series of other decisions are often taken subsequently that are grossly unfair to an area. I would be most grateful if my right hon. Friend looked further into that.
The purpose of local planning frameworks is precisely to impart more certainty and predictability to the decisions that a planning authority must make. As for the concerns about development in back gardens, the evidence suggests that most authorities are still not taking advantage of the scope of the powers that they have under the guidance that we have already issued. However, I note what my hon. Friend has said, and if in the light of the review there is evidence to suggest that steps of that kind may be needed, we will certainly consider them.
Given the apparently huge disparity between the experiences of Members throughout the House in their constituencies, and given the overall statistics that my right hon. Friend has cited, will he publish the methodology and definitions that he will employ in his review? Before that, will he provide more detailed guidance on how local authorities can address issues of garden grabbing in the way that he has described? For reasons best known to themselves, many are not doing so at present.
I urge my hon. Friend—as I have already urged Opposition Members—to encourage his local authority to pay much more attention to the scope that already exists in PPS3. In the new year we will make clear and public how the review is to be conducted, so that Members in all parts of the House have an opportunity to contribute evidence and experience from their constituencies and local authority areas. That will enable us to ascertain whether it is possible to secure a better evidence base on which to make policy judgments of this kind in the future.
The debate about the focus of the review has centred largely on garden grabbing. Will the Minister reassure me that he will consider not just back garden development but development on green spaces as defined in the amendment, including
"land laid out as a public garden" and
"land used for the purposes of public recreation"?
We have not yet made up our minds about the terms of the review, but I will take into account what the hon. Lady has said. A number of Members are clearly very interested in this issue, and if they wish to make their own contributions to the debate, I look forward to hearing them. Meanwhile, let me conclude my own opening remarks.
Many Members who have spoken today have professed to believe in the proper power of elected local authorities. Imposing a blanket duty of this nature would take from elected local representatives the power to make proper, balanced judgments based on their knowledge of the overall needs of their areas. I believe that such decisions are best made by democratically elected councillors, working with local planners, who are much closer to the needs of local people and who will be better acquainted with the particular characteristics of any piece of land that may or may not be suitable for housing.
It is not right to tie the hands of local councils and planning authorities. It is not currently necessary for councils to protect gardens, and such action would distort planning decisions and the scope for appeals. Above all, there is as yet no systematic evidence that there is a problem in need of this solution. However, we have not closed our minds to the concerns that have been expressed, and we are prepared to review the evidence in the new year. If there is a clear problem, we will act. In the meantime, I hope that the House will accept that ours is a reasonable response which constitutes a sensible next step, and that until the review has been completed it makes no sense to pre-empt its findings and jump to policy conclusions, let alone amendments to legislation. I therefore hope that the House will support me in rejecting Lords amendment No. 115.
I, too, congratulate Dan Rogerson. It is a pleasure to see Julia Goldsworthy, but the hon. Gentleman is a stalwart of our proceedings on the Bill, and it would have been nice to see him here. Of course, he might have preferred to be present in a week or two, when the baby starts squalling!
I am grateful to Earl Cathcart for tabling the amendment, which follows a long tradition. Both my hon. Friend Greg Clark and my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman tried desperately, through the medium of private Members' Bills, to persuade the Government to recognise that garden grabbing was an issue; and it is possible that I was the first person to raise the whole issue of overdevelopment, in a Westminster Hall debate. There is a long history of battling with the Government on this issue.
I fully acknowledge the hard work done by all Members, especially Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. I tabled a private Member's Bill in 2005, six weeks after my election. I do not know whether that gives me precedence, but it certainly demonstrates that Members in all part of the House are deeply concerned about the issue.
The hon. Lady is right—and that concern is felt not just throughout the House, but throughout the country. The Minister mentioned a survey which, according to Earl Cathcart, refers to Bradford, Chelmsford and Tunbridge Wells. Those three towns, or cities, are very different, but they have similar problems. We in the outer-London boroughs have those problems too, as was pointed out by Susan Kramer.
I am glad that the Government have promised us a review after all these years. I shall keep my remarks relatively brief, although there is much in regard to the Lords amendments that I want to put on record because the Bill is so undemocratic and badly thought through.
There can be no substantive vote in Parliament for the national policy statements, which, in my view, means that they will go straight into the courts. That completely negates our basic reason for supporting them. The Infrastructure Planning Commission is equally undemocratic in removing Ministers' responsibility for making final decisions. The right to be heard in planning inquiries is still substantive, and the whole issue of the community infrastructure levy—with which I hope we will deal today—is unlikely to be considered in full.
We want to discuss the subject of garden grabbing, even if we must do so relatively briefly. It is not just a case of the number of houses built on gardens, and it is not just a question of the number of planning applications for development in back gardens that succeed. According to the latest statistics, 21 per cent. of new dwellings in Bromley were built on former back gardens. The main point is that the nature of an area and a neighbourhood is changed by an increase in the density of housing. Areas are changed from—in my case—broad suburban streets with one house on a decent-sized garden to blocks of flats containing 48 people. That puts huge pressure on train services, health services, education services and roads, all because, sadly, the Planning Inspectorate has been bullied by the Government into making the decisions.
I do not disagree with what the hon. Lady has said about the Planning Inspectorate, but does she accept that part of the unfairness of the system is the way in which it differentiates within areas? Changes may not be contemplated in one part of a district or borough, but in another part, once agreement has been reached the process of gradual degradation continues.
The hon. Gentleman does not go far enough. I quite agree that as soon as a planning application is agreed in a street, there is a gradual change in that location, but there is nothing, even in conservation areas, to stop the Planning Inspectorate granting planning permission on appeal. That has happened on a very nice street in my constituency, where there has been appeal after appeal after appeal, and eventually the Planning Inspectorate gave permission. As a result, like a series of collapsing dominoes, the nature of that street will change. That is what everybody finds so objectionable.
The Government try hard to play the innocent in all this by saying that PPS3 is no different from what went before, but it is very different. As Baroness Andrews identified in the other place, this started in 1985 when there was a need to categorise land use. That was when the category "residential R" was used to include
"houses, flats and adjoining garages, gardens, estate roads and pathways. Sheltered accommodation where residences have separate front entrances."
This was a convenient way of grouping statistical information, and nothing more than that.
Then, in 1992? Chris Patten issued a new version of planning policy guidance note 3, which did not include any such definition of gardens as brownfield, nor did it contain density targets. Indeed, the guidance discouraged residential infill where inappropriate and gave a broad discretion to councils to protect the character of their locality.
"set out the definition of previously-developed land for the purposes for planning for housing, derived from urban land uses based on the Land Use Change Statistics classification introduced in 1985 but not previously articulated in planning guidance."—[ Hansard, 21 March 2006; Vol. 444, c. 296W.]
That is the difference—the Government introduced the change in the PPG3 of 2000. Although I welcome the Minister's announcement today of a review, it would be helpful if he examined the history, recognised what happened in 2000 and accepted that it is the Government's fault that we are where we are.
The excuses have changed as this debate has gone on, and the next excuse, which is relatively new and has been expressed today, relates to the local development frameworks. Those of us who have been watching the progress of LDFs have been astounded by how slowly they have come through, how often they have been sent back for revision and change, and how few have gained permission and agreement. It is, to say the least, disingenuous for the Government to claim that, under the LDF, councils have the right to set out their views on garden grabbing. Theoretically, the Planning Inspectorate has the final say on LDFs, of course, but if there is an instruction under the PPG3 of 2000 to include gardens, councils have very little chance of getting things through. Additionally, just recently we all thought the LDFs represented a binding decision in relation to the Planning Inspectorate, but they were recently challenged—in the High Court, I believe, in the case of the Crawley LDF—and the judge found against the inspectorate. So, the LDF is no longer binding, which decisively shoots any protection offered out of the water.
Much of what we are talking about—such as the difficulties involved in a local authority retaining control over the identity of its own area—has been challenged and changed by this Government. I suppose it is some comfort that, from a very quick reading, the Killian Pretty review seems to be suggesting that most of what the Government have introduced should be altered so that local authorities regain their ability to be much more in control of their own planning. We hope that the Government accept the review findings, and we will be looking out for what happens to that review. However, in order to ensure that as much pressure as possible remains on the Government to amend the Bill so we have an end to garden grabbing, I shall advise my hon. Friends to vote with the Lords and against the Government motion to disagree.
I will be sure to pass on the many congratulations from all parts of the House on the arrival of Elowen Ruby Rose Rogerson, and I can safely say that, although my hon. Friend Dan Rogerson has committed a huge amount of time to this Bill, he would prefer to be with his family and their new arrival at this very special time.
A series of important issues arise in connection with the groups of amendments that we are discussing, so I shall speak only briefly. The Liberal Democrats support Lords amendment No. 115, which is the culmination of concern from Members in all parts of the House. As Mrs. Lait said, the hon. Members for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) introduced private Members' Bills to protect back gardens and public open spaces, particularly in suburban areas, where there seems to be a greater problem than in other areas.
My hon. Friend Lorely Burt first raised this issue just six weeks after being elected to Parliament, and the proposal in her excellent Local Government and Planning (Parkland and Windfall Development) Bill would have gone further than this amendment, by allowing for local referendums to decide when public open spaces can and cannot be sold off. That was an interesting and innovative proposal which would have handed real power back to communities, who are rightly concerned that the character of their areas is being adversely and irreparably affected by developments in gardens and open spaces.
It is a travesty that much-needed green space in urban areas is lumped into the category of brownfield land, and that the Government are insisting that there is not a problem when eminently developable, genuinely brownfield public sector land lies largely unused. Earlier this year, my hon. Friend Lembit Öpik received a ministerial response stating that 70 per cent. of the land owned by the Department of Health is not being used. Ministers cannot insist that communities accept unquestioningly new development on their public open spaces without at least putting their own houses, and the land on which houses could be built, in order. There is a large amount of brownfield land in my constituency, but it is highly contaminated by heavy metals from mining. Even in such areas, there is a hierarchy of brownfield sites, and often back gardens are the most attractive and most affordable to develop.
I hope that the review will look into such concerns and that it will be forward-looking in scope as well as backward-looking. There are great concerns in my constituency that the housing targets set by the regional spatial strategy can be fulfilled only by developing every available space in the entire constituency.
Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the attractions of garden grabbing is that developers are usually in a position to build a small development? They always build nine units in my constituency, because at 10 they would have to provide one social housing unit. If they take on much larger plots of brownfield land, they have to put in significant amounts of social housing. I have two local authorities that are desperately trying to increase social housing in our area, but they are finding that the whole interest of the development community is in using gardens for luxury housing.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about how the incentives are skewed towards development on gardens in too many cases.
In announcing his review today, the Minister is being very helpful. The Minister in the other place, whom my colleagues there have said was helpful and courteous throughout, has used the excuse that there has not been time to consult on the implications of this amendment. The review is very welcome, but I am not clear why there has been no opportunity to initiate such a review before today, given that the Bill has been going through the House for 11 months and the issue has been raised on numerous occasions by Back Benchers. I would appreciate some comment from the Minister on why a decision has now been taken to carry out that review, given that it would perhaps have been more timely to have made such a decision earlier. It is a little frustrating, because Ministers in another place have been constructive on a number of other issues, so it would perhaps have been more sensible for the Government to have tabled their own amendment to reflect the concerns that residents all over Britain have about this issue. Such a provision could have been inserted in the Bill and perhaps made subject to regulation. That would have given a lot of people more confidence that this issue was being directly addressed.
To pick up on the point made by Susan Kramer, should not the review closely examine whether the Government's failure to define gardens correctly as gardens, rather than as brownfield land, has thwarted their endeavour to ensure that a significant percentage of the new homes that are being built are affordable? As she has pointed out, the failure to define gardens correctly has thwarted the Government in their own objective, and that should form part of the review.
The impact of the lack of classification should be considered in that review. In a way, the amendment would make it easier for the Department to conduct such a review, because a clear classification of green space and brownfield land would make it much easier to separate the differential impact of development in these different areas. The lack of such differentiation at present makes the review's job more difficult.
The amendment involves a second principle that should be raised, and it places clear blue water between ourselves and the Government. The amendment says that guidance issued by the Secretary of State or the regional planning authorities cannot simply override local priorities, and we share that approach. The local authority and local views should take priority and precedence, yet this Government seem determined to subject communities to a litany of regional and national policies and targets that will necessarily trump local priorities in the pecking order and that, in many cases, will take a bulldozer not only to valued green spaces, but to local democracy. This is one example where the Government take that approach, but there are many others in the Bill. One need only look at the approach on national policy statements and on the Infrastructure Planning Commission to see that.
May I offer my hon. Friend another example? In Solihull, the Government have ignored our regional development plan and have commissioned another independent consultancy, Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners, which has come up with recommendations that treble the already agreed allocation of new housing for the borough of Solihull. Perhaps she might like to ask the Minister how that can be, and how it sits with the comments that he is making about putting decision making in the hands of the people who are elected in their local areas.
In too many cases, it seems that the wishes of the local community are being undermined by the Bill, yet it is an opportunity to promote them. The Minister is in denial about the scale of the assault on back gardens and on small, but often highly valued, open spaces in urban areas. I welcome the door opening a crack, through the chance to examine this issue in the review, but before we are fully reassured we will need to hear much more detail on its terms and implications.
All too often, particularly in the Department for Communities and Local Government, excellent reports are commissioned but then, unfortunately, gather dust on top shelves once they have been completed. Members across the House are acutely aware of the need to build more housing, particularly social housing and affordable housing. We have suggested innovative ways to increase our social housing stock after a decade of failure in that area. As ever, the aim surely must be not only to build houses but to foster and maintain living, vibrant communities. It is not just about plonking people in rows of boxes; we must create places in which people want to live, work and grow up. We need places that are not just environmentally friendly but a friendly environment in which to live. Back gardens and open spaces in which to meet and play are essential to achieving that aim, so for those reasons, my hon. Friends and I will support the amendment.
I welcome the opportunity to speak, given my long-standing interest in back garden development, and I wish to pay tribute to the work of many hon. Members present who have taken up this cause. An interesting feature of the debate on the definition of gardens and how best to protect them is that it has elicited so much interest from Members from all parts of this House, as well in another place. That has come in the guise of an early-day motion signed by 179 Members representing all parties—not those whom one might call the usual suspects, but Members whose constituencies have been badly afflicted by this problem of back garden development—and in the guise of ten-minute Bills and private Members' Bills tabled by my hon. Friend Greg Clark, Lorely Burt and me. Those things, in themselves, indicate how seriously Members in the House of Commons take this issue.
I dispute the Minister's view that the most recent changes to planning guidance provide adequate protection for gardens. Patently, they do not. I detect a degree of complacency in the attitude of a Government who are prepared to wait even until next year for a review to take place. Plenty of evidence is available to show that the existing guidance simply does not work. That is because of a deadly combination when these cases go to appeal: the definition of brownfield land extending to gardens, housing targets, and density targets. The combination of those three things takes precedence in the hierarchy of decision making when the planning inspector reviews a case where planning consent has been refused. There is plenty of evidence to show that since the introduction of that change to planning guidance in 2006, the defence that the Minister cites is simply not working. Local planning authorities know that, developers know that and communities know that—to their cost.
The fact that the change to planning guidance has now been in force for more than 18 months flies in the face of people's experience. As recently as last week, I was contacted by a local action group called the Friends of Middleton Conservation Area. Its local council, Darlington borough council, had refused a controversial application for garden development, not least because the application related to a conservation area. The application went to appeal, and despite strong representations from the council, the decision was overturned.
I raise that example—there are many more such examples—not only because it crossed my desk last week, 18 months after the introduction of the change in guidance to which the Minister referred, but because the application was for development in a conservation area. If a local council is overruled when trying to prevent inappropriate development in a conservation area, surely something is drastically wrong with the planning system.
I urge hon. Members to think long and hard about the legacy of the prioritisation of brownfield land, including gardens. The legacy is significant in terms of the environment and infrastructure. I have seen at first hand the environmental legacy in areas where inappropriate garden development has been permitted. Neighbourhoods that were once a finely balanced mix of green spaces and homes have been changed beyond recognition. Family homes have been demolished, trees have been felled and hedges have been uprooted. Gardens that were a rich source of urban biodiversity have been stripped back and buried under concrete, with all the environmental implications that follow.
Not only is the natural environment under assault, but the architectural environment is too. In some cases, old family houses have been bulldozed to make way for high-density, multi-storey apartment blocks. Likewise, bungalows are in developers' sights in a rush to create high-density housing.
Does the hon. Lady know that in one development on a suburban street in south-west London the developers have proposed—because there is no street parking—a subterranean garage with a hydraulic lift to take the cars down, as if it were in the middle of Manhattan?
I thank the hon. Lady for that example, and I am happy to trade another horrifying example from this past year—a year after the changes in planning guidance were made that were supposed to be the salvation of back gardens. Two bungalows in Marston Green in my constituency were proposed for demolition to make way for 71 apartments. And that was on a narrow, tree-lined lane with difficult access.
As politicians, we have to ask ourselves where we are going with this. We know that there is a shortage of family-sized homes, especially with gardens. That was acknowledged by the Chief Secretary, when she was Housing Minister. We know that our country has an ageing population. People are living longer and the evidence is that they will want to live longer in their own homes, which makes the rush to demolish bungalows—the very type of home that will be vital to many older people's ability to sustain themselves at home for longer—such nonsense. We know that there is a chronic shortage of affordable homes, so it is perverse that developers are almost directed to build high-density housing on areas with a high land value, with the consequences that we have all seen: large numbers of luxury apartments while housing lists grow in our constituencies, and those who desperately need housing not able to attain the affordable housing that the Government set out to achieve.
We also know that flood risk will dominate over the coming years, so why on earth are we relying on a planning system that says it is a good idea to concrete over urban green spaces, thereby reducing the drainage capacity? I have seen a particularly bad case of that in Cheltenham, which is prone to flooding and severely affected by the phenomenon of garden grabbing. Sir Michael Pitt, who led the Government's review of last summer's floods, told the BBC that garden grabbing had increased the risk of further flooding. He said:
"If it was just one house and one garden, this would not be an issue. It's the cumulative effect over time of many, many properties."
It would be a mistake for the Government to ignore that advice.
If the Minister requires evidence of whether his planning guidance is working, he need look no further than GardenOrganic, a website set up by people who want to protect gardens. Every week, examples of garden grabbing are cited on that website, from Ballyrobert in Northern Ireland, from Cardiff in Wales—where it is proposed to develop a reservoir site for housing—and from Forest Hill in London. It is happening all over the country, which is why it excites the interest of so many Members, here and in the other place.
It was Members in the other place who voted in favour of this amendment. Clearly, they saw that the law is not strong enough to provide the necessary protection for gardens. It boils down to the fundamental question of whether Ministers in Whitehall know better about local planning applications than the communities that will be affected and the people whom those communities elect to represent them. Members of Parliament can argue about the rights and wrongs of various planning applications, but the basic question must surely be who is best placed to make the decisions—town hall or Whitehall? If we have really reached the stage where the Government do not even trust councils to determine which residential gardens are suitable for development and which are not, the lip service that the Government pay to decentralisation is risible.
I shall now turn my attention to the way in which the Government have changed their response to the issue of garden grabbing, which may help to explain why they object to the amendment. I cannot help but notice, because I have been campaigning on this issue for so long, that the Government's various attempts to stonewall have been built on shifting sands. When garden grabbing was debated first, it came under the remit of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minster, and the objection from Mr. Prescott was that the need for house building was such that gardens were a legitimate source of development. When the baton was passed to Ruth Kelly, she moved the Government's position and instead maintained that councils already had powers at their disposal to prevent garden grabbing. Now the issue rests with the current Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and I note that there has been another change of tack.
When this amendment was debated in the other place, the Government insisted that they could not support it because they needed to consult local government first. Far be it from me, or any other hon. Member, to second-guess the view of local government, but I think that it is safe to say that giving local councils more power over local planning decisions could only be welcomed by local government. Are Ministers honestly trying to tell us that giving councils the power to protect gardens where they think that appropriate will be controversial, and that for that reason we should oppose this amendment? If that is their last line of defence, the argument has certainly been won, even if the vote is not.
Sadly, the fact that we are debating an amendment to remove a clause to give councils the power to protect gardens shows how hostile to local communities this Government have now become. There is a stark contrast in how this issue has been approached. The Government have been inconsistent in their reasons for seeking to prevent gardens from having greater protection in planning law. They have gone from defending garden development to blaming local councils for not using what powers they do have. When it came to my own private Member's Bill, Labour Members talked it out rather than pressing it to a Division, but hon. Members from both sides of the House who have campaigned for more protection for gardens have put forward a reasoned, consistent and common-sense case for tightening the loophole. Hon. Members who signed the early-day motion on the issue might wish to think long and hard about the consistency of that signature with how they vote on the issue tonight.
Clause 194 offers an historic opportunity for us to change planning law in a way that will strengthen local communities, and safeguard the environment and infrastructure that underpin where people live. Members in the other place have shown that they are willing to speak up for the growing body of people who want to see their neighbourhoods and communities protected. If at the end of today's debate this clause is removed, the public will judge this Government very harshly.
I recognise and respect what Mrs. Lait called the long track record of several hon. Members, on both sides of the House—not least Mrs. Spelman—in raising concerns about garden grabbing, or development in back gardens. However, it is curious, given that long track record of campaigning, that the evidence is so thin and anecdotal —[ Interruption. ] Well, the hon. Member for Beckenham protests from a sedentary position, but the six towns study does not count. She cited some figures from her local authority area, but she did not cite any wider study, rigorous evidence or independent research that would provide good grounds for the Government to adjust their policy now or amend the legislation.
The Minister has agreed that Members have a long track record in raising these issues. Most of us do not raise such issues for trivial reasons. There is therefore a clear indication that there is great concern about this issue. Some 21 per cent. of all new houses built in Bromley are on back gardens, and that is one fifth of all planning applications. I cannot believe that the Minister thinks that one fifth of all planning applications are not important.
I heard what the hon. Lady said earlier, and I have just referred to what she said about Bromley. In a way, the point partly applies to the remarks of the hon. Member for Meriden, who seemed to be arguing that we should move away from not only the question of development in gardens but the priority of brownfield sites per se.
Let me pick up on the point about blanket directions at a national level. They are simply unlikely to suit all circumstances. The hon. Member for Beckenham cites figures that are apparently from Bromley. In 2005, for instance, Basildon council informed us that not 20-odd per cent.—as was the case in Bromley—but 72 per cent. of such developments were on previously developed or residential land. The reason for that was that during that period in Basildon there was, quite rightly, a large programme of demolitions, as the town had a lot of pressure on it for housing and a lot of previously developed land. There was a large programme of demolitions, in particular the demolition of the old Five Links estate, and of replacing the demolished areas with new housing and new estates with private gardens. In short, it involved the redevelopment of land that had previously been residential—the sort of areas that, in blanket terms, hon. Members are concerned about. It resulted in more houses with gardens for more families. That is exactly the sort of development the hon. Member for Meriden wants to see and that hon. Members are keen to encourage.
The hon. Member for Beckenham, as well as one or two other hon. Members in their many interventions, tried to argue that the Planning Inspectorate's—PINS's—decisions are one of the sources of the problems and the reasons for the increase in garden development. There is no serious evidence of PINS's overturning local authority decisions on brownfield development just because the developments are on garden land. Figures that have been provided to us by the PINS service show that, in the couple of years up to the early autumn of 2007, 28.5 per cent. of appeals were granted on minor dwellings—on fewer than 10 dwellings. In other words, in more than 70 per cent. of the cases, PINS supported the local authority decision. I therefore think that it is an inconclusive argument, at best, to say that the problems are somehow created by the Planning Inspectorate and its series of decisions.
The sort of approach that we are confronted with, as a House, is not merely about pre-empting the sort of proper evidence base needed to make such decisions. It is worth stressing now a point that I touched on earlier but did not develop. Such an approach would prevent the Secretary of State from setting aside decisions made in accordance with the adopted local policies of a planning authority for the protection of gardens or green space, effectively removing the discretion to take account of other considerations, such as the design or suitability of transport links, in determining appeals.
If the Lords amendment is not rejected, and we do not have the opportunity to assemble the evidence, debate the policy options that might be appropriate or consult on any potential legal changes—as the Conservative-led Local Government Association made clear in a briefing on the Bill this afternoon that it would rightly wish to happen—we risk distorting the planning process and also the scope for appeals. Such a provision would place restrictions on the right of appeal of ordinary home and garden owners against the decision of a planning authority and could also touch on human rights issues.
I have confirmed that, in the new year, we will undertake a review of the evidence. The debate, I have to say, has not added to the evidence base. It has added to the list of individual examples and anecdotes and has reinforced the understandable sense of concern that hon. Members say that they have about what goes on in their area. I tell those Members who are concerned that one useful step that they might consider is that of asking their local authority what use it makes of the scope available under PPS3. Furthermore, although in general I am not one to promote the views of Mr. Pickles, they might want to consult him on the approach that his local authority has taken. In our experience, it is one of the few local authorities to have in place the sort of planning policies that make distinctions that are locally justified, locally rooted and locally determined within the category of brownfield land for priority development.
I welcome the fact that Julia Goldsworthy said that she regards the confirmation of a review that I announced today as helpful. I welcome the welcome that the hon. Member for Beckenham gave to that review. I hope that she considers it as a new step, which is sensible and reasonable in the circumstances. I hope that she and other hon. Members will reflect on the fact that jumping beyond that approach to a conclusion that the policy and the legislation require change is not sensible or reasonable. There is a proper order for such things. We intend to undertake that review and will then establish whether there is systematic evidence that would warrant the changes for which some have argued this afternoon.
I hope that the hon. Member for Beckenham will not press the amendment to a Division. If she does, I shall have to ask my hon. Friends to stick with the view that the House should disagree with the Lords on amendment No. 115.