I am delighted to have secured this Adjournment debate today, as it will give me the opportunity to highlight some of the fears that have been expressed to me, and that I share, about the proposals for housing and infrastructure development in Buckinghamshire and its effect on the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty.
May I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Jake Berry, to his place? I gather that he is going to respond to this half-hour Adjournment debate. If there are any matters on which he needs clarification, I hope that he will write to me afterwards following this brief debate.
I preface my remarks by saying that I am neither against building more homes nor against modernising our infrastructure, but our policies must be pursued without sacrificing the environment, countryside and wildlife, all of which are coming under increasing pressure, no more so than in the Chilterns. If Members will forgive the history lesson, the idea of areas of outstanding natural beauty was born in 1945. John Dower, in his role as Secretary of the Standing Committee on National Parks in England and Wales, determined what they would look like. He said that
“a National Park is an extensive area of beautiful and relatively wild country in which, for the nation’s benefit and by appropriate national decision and action, (a) the characteristic landscape beauty is strictly preserved, (b) access and facilities for public open-air enjoyment are amply provided, (c) wildlife and buildings and places of architectural and historical interest are suitably protected, while (d) established farming use is effectively maintained.”
I thank my right hon. Friend for graciously giving way. Will she comment on the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s position that AONBs should be used only for affordable housing? How does that fit into the rural set-up for AONBs?
My hon. Friend will have to hold fire. I will come to such matters later in my speech, but I thank him for his intervention.
The report laid the foundations for the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, under which protections for AONBs were set out. Subsequently, in 1965, the Chilterns were designated an AONB. I am delighted to see on the Treasury Bench two of my colleagues who, like you, Mr Speaker, are Buckinghamshire MPs. I hope that they will nod in agreement with some of the points I am going to make.
John Dower basically said that two most important aspects of AONB status are preservation and protection. Of the 46 UK AONBs, 34 are in England, covering approximately 15% of the country. If we wish to conserve and enhance these landscapes, we need continuous and co-ordinated action from successive Governments. We are incredibly fortunate in the UK to have such a collection of beautiful protected landscapes, and all AONBs should be protected for future generations to enjoy now and for posterity.
We will need AONBs more than ever as the population grows and urban areas expand, reducing our green spaces, particularly in proximity to concentrations of people in the south-east. The Chilterns, for example, already has 1.6 million people living within 8 km and 10 million within an hour’s drive. People will need these green islands in our increasingly densely populated country. Despite this, many of England’s AONBs are under growing pressure, particularly from housing development, with a leap in the number of units approved corresponding with the amount of land lost. In the Chilterns AONB, an average of 138 units a year were approved between 2012 and 2015. This number almost trebled to 386 during the shorter period of 2015 to 2017. That is a worrying trend.
Unlike national parks, which have their own independent planning authority, AONBs rely solely on their local authorities and planning inspectors for their protection, and the planning appeals process often results in local planners’ decisions being overturned. With housing and infrastructure pressure so severe in the south, can a protected landscape near London really no longer be protected to the same degree as landscapes elsewhere?
The Chiltern District Council area is around 70% AONB. It is producing a local plan jointly with South Bucks District Council, but they need to demonstrate that they will meet the target of 14,900 new dwellings by 2036, with sufficient land for employment and other accommodation. Under current Government proposals, the number of new dwellings could increase to 16,300. It is vital that housing numbers and locations are determined locally and not imposed top-down by central Government, as unfortunately seems increasingly to be the case under the proposed new objectively assessed housing need formula, which will dramatically increase the number of houses required in Buckinghamshire.
Adjacent, in Aylesbury Vale, we are seeing an enormous amount of housing development and the steady march on the green belt. In fairness, it has been accepted that Aylesbury, which is outside the AONB, is a good candidate for such development and it may absorb some of the housing requirement imposed on Chiltern and South Bucks, but Slough is also facing housing demands and is seeking to offset some of its housing into the South Buckinghamshire area, which would increase the squeeze on our fragile protected landscape.
There are some more factors to add to the mix. First—as will be eagerly anticipated by my colleagues and you, Mr Speaker—is HS2. I opposed HS2 being routed through the Chilterns AONB and have campaigned relentlessly for it to be, at best, abandoned or, at worst, tunnelled under the entire AONB. My right hon. Friend Mr Lidington is particularly affected by the fact that the tunnel stops prematurely, before the end of the AONB. Although I obtained two tunnel extensions, I think we were all disappointed when the decision was taken not to tunnel the entire AONB.
The precedent HS2 has set for other developments in AONBs, or for other designated landscapes in the country that are supposedly protected by law, is very worrying. Sadly, the problem may not stop at the railway. HS2 has purchased property and land under the HS2 schemes, and I am concerned that as future Governments seek to offset the rising costs of this horrible project, this land will be used for further, as yet unplanned, development in the Chilterns AONB, bypassing and overruling local planning objections and opinions. In Buckinghamshire, we will also have one of the largest numbers of HS2 construction vehicle movements in the country. So far, 548,834 journeys have been estimated, which will have a severe impact on our roads and place financial pressure on our local councils and their resources, and their ability to protect our landscape.
I wish I could say that that was the only major project on the horizon in the AONB, but on top of the pressure from HS2 and the national housing requirements, the recently published National Infrastructure Commission report on the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford arc further threatens the future of the Chilterns. The NIC’s report offers a significant opportunity for economic growth, but the proposals include building 1 million new homes in the corridor by 2050, and could lead to 150,000 houses or more built in central Buckinghamshire in close proximity to the Chilterns AONB, with knock-on consequences. They also include a new rail link and an east-west expressway.
Economic growth naturally leads to additional housing. That is likely to be built mainly in Aylesbury Vale, but south Buckinghamshire will no doubt experience significant additional pressure for more housing. Already we have problems. One problem is that too many houses receive planning permission only for developers to sit on the permissions to maximise their profits. We should ensure that sites with permission are actually built so that we really know where we are on house building locally. The focus is always on housing numbers, with much less weight being given to quality and “place shaping”, which should be given much greater emphasis. Chesham Renaissance Community Interest Company, for example, has produced an innovative local plan for Chesham to reinforce its historical centre and complement local economic needs without sacrificing the environment and landscape. The grassroots organisations across our county should be listened to.
I would also like the Government to commit to delivering the essential accompanying infrastructure with any development that comes following the NIC report. This must include funding, or funding mechanisms, for items such as local roads, parks, schools, doctors’ surgeries, broadband, mobile coverage and so on, which will make new developments desirable places to live—but they will not be if the environment is substantially damaged.
The NIC defines the Oxford-Cambridge arc very tightly, but in reality growth in the area will have major impacts beyond and into adjoining areas such as south Buckinghamshire. The route of East West Rail is agreed through Buckinghamshire, although not through Bedfordshire, but the route of the proposed road expressway has not yet been identified, and is likely to impact on future housing and transport demand. New capacity on and off the expressway will be required, with knock-on congestion consequences for the Chilterns, together with potential major increases in traffic commuting into London. The economic growth in the corridor will also lead to increased demand for links to an expanded Heathrow and the M4 corridor, which in turn will lead to pressures for land to be released for development in these areas and for improvements to roads such as the A4010 through the AONB.
The proposal for 15,000 houses, with room to grow thereafter, is a major proposition that would completely transform Buckinghamshire. It is, in effect, a new city. Buckinghamshire has already accommodated the major new town of Milton Keynes, and we must not forget that Slough was once a Buckinghamshire town as well. Much of northern historical Bucks is now urbanised by Milton Keynes, and its growth to a population of “at least 500,000”, as proposed by the NIC, will increase that urbanisation. On our western border, Bicester is growing fast as a major new garden town. A new central Bucks city risks leading to the merging of urban areas between Bicester and Milton Keynes, which is also close to Luton. If it is anticipated to grow to be larger than Milton Keynes today, that will irrevocably change the nature of Buckinghamshire into a far more urban environment. Any proposal for a new city is likely to be strongly opposed, quite rightly, by local residents, whose recent experiences with HS2 have left an indelible mark.
There are further threats from the administrative structures in Buckinghamshire. I am leaving aside the problem of cross-departmental co-ordination, which those of us who have been or are still in government know is one of the most difficult things to manage. The NIC’s proposals are ambitious, but at a time when we face possible local government restructuring and have two overlapping local enterprise partnerships—the South East Midlands LEP and the Bucks Thames Valley LEP—the challenges the proposals present to the AONB and our area could be exacerbated.
There is no agreement on how the NIC’s proposals will be managed. Although there is general acceptance that Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire will have their own growth boards, a SEMLEP group of district councils and unitary authorities have argued for a very large central bloc encompassing the whole of Buckinghamshire, Milton Keynes, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire, plus their LEPs. I hope that the Department is not banking on such a grouping, thinking it would be simple to manage or is the answer.
Buckinghamshire County Council and the Bucks LEP have opposed the idea on the grounds that this area is far too large and heterogeneous. It would involve some 20 councils and organisations, and it is doubtful whether these would all agree when difficult decisions were required. If decisions were made on a majority vote basis, it could result in key decisions for our county being made without the support of any Bucks councils or the LEP, leading to a lack of legitimacy for important decisions and potential damage to our AONB. Buckinghamshire County Council has argued that a Bucks growth board would best reflect the specific needs of Bucks. I would like the Department to look seriously at this option, as it is likely to offer much better protection for the AONB and surrounding area.
Returning to the AONB, the national planning policy framework sets out that great weight should be given to conserving AONBs for their landscape and scenic beauty, and that major development should be refused except in exceptional circumstances and where it is in the public interest. We have to ask what the terms, “great weight”, “exceptional circumstance” and “public interest” actually mean. They are open to interpretation and there is no uniformity between local authorities and, therefore, nationally. Any development in AONBs sets a precedent for more development, and faith in the protections given to our AONBs has waned. It needs to be reaffirmed and strengthened for every person in this country who wants their children to grow up with the guarantee that the wildlife and open spaces that we take for granted are truly protected.
The Chilterns AONB contains rare habitats, not least our chalk streams. The River Chess, which surfaces just north of Chesham, is a groundwater-fed chalk stream of precious environmental importance. The unique character of chalk streams means they provide a very rich habitat for wildlife, which makes the Chess an ideal habitat for several species listed in the Government’s UK biodiversity action plan, including the water vole, the grey heron and the kingfisher. Wildlife is dependent on the Chess, which, as part of the Colne area, is already designated both over-licensed and over-abstracted due to the high levels of water taken out of it, mostly for homes. This classification was given over a decade ago, when it was already considered problematic. It has dried up several times since then, and this is before the potential damage to the aquifer from HS2 tunnelling. I am concerned that, on top of this, the mass building of new homes in this area, all of which will of course need water, would not take account of an ecologically valuable river.
I welcome the Government’s announcement over the weekend about the plans to create a new northern forest, and the Minister is the champion for the north. We will see 50 million trees planted over the next 25 years, but we should not let this distract us from the more pressing issue of our policy on preservation and protection for our existing irreplaceable landscapes. Some 700 ancient woodlands are under threat across the UK, and it is imperative that the Government use the upcoming review of the national planning policy framework to close the loophole in paragraph 118, which currently allows ancient woodland, even within AONBs, to be destroyed or damaged, and to give it the same protection as, for example, our built heritage.
I am honoured to be the president of the Bucks Campaign to Protect Rural England. It, too, would like increased protections in the NPPF review. It would like to see a clear presumption against proposals for large housing developments in AONBs, incorporation of the statutory duty of regard—that would ensure all planning authorities had regard to the purpose of the AONB—and publication of annual statistics on the rate of development and other change of land use in AONBs. Housing requirements could be adjusted to reflect the designated landscape in the area. I cannot emphasise enough the word “designated”, as the Chilterns AONB is nationally designated as worthy of protection and preservation, but we are in danger of making a mockery of John Dower’s original vision to ensure that we do not concrete over this green and pleasant land.
The multiplicity of proposals and changes that now hang over the Chilterns need to be co-ordinated. I mentioned earlier the problems with cross-departmental operations, and when preparing for this debate I have had input from our district and county councils, the Chiltern Conservative Board, the Chiltern Society, the River Chess Association, Bucks Campaign to Protect Rural England, the local wildlife trust, the Woodland Trust and many others who reflect the wide interest and concern for our area. So many Departments of State will also be involved in a development of this kind, and it must be co-ordinated at the highest possible level to ensure the minimum damage.
I hope that the Minister has some optimistic words and proposals for me when he responds to this debate. The Chilterns AONB lies at the heart of an area that, if this Government fail adequately to protect it from development, will result in this country losing one of its environmental jewels and this beautiful landscape will become a concrete jungle.
I start by congratulating my distinguished right hon. Friend Dame Cheryl Gillan on securing an important debate for her constituents and the area of Chesham and Amersham. I see that only last June she was channelling Queen Elizabeth I when she said:
“HS2 will be written on my heart…when I leave this world.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 626, c. 241.]
However, unlike Queen Elizabeth I, who went on to lose Calais, my right hon. Friend will surely see a more favourable outcome for her priorities, and I pay tribute to her. Throughout my time in this House I have seen her campaign on these very important issues on behalf of her constituents. There is clearly a significant amount of change happening in the area, around the Oxford-Cambridge corridor—housing growth, High Speed 2 and local government reform. I have noted the points my right hon. Friend has so ably made. Let me deal with some of them now. I will begin with a few words about areas of outstanding natural beauty, the green belt and ancient woodlands.
Areas of outstanding natural beauty have the highest status of environmental protection in the national planning policy framework, which states:
“Great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty”.
In the year to March 2016, only 0.2 per cent of the Chilterns AONB was given to residential buildings. I can confirm that the Government are committed to retaining this protection, and it will not be weakened through our planning reforms. The interpretation of the NPPF protection for AONBs is in the first instance for the local authority to determine and thereafter, if relevant, for the planning inspector.
Further to that, in line with our manifesto commitment, the Government will also maintain strong protections for our green belt. Our national planning policy framework makes it clear that most new building is inappropriate in green belt and should be refused planning permission except in very special circumstances. Only in exceptional circumstances may local authorities alter a green-belt boundary, after consulting local people and submitting a revised local plan.
We made a manifesto commitment to strengthen the protection of ancient woodland—a hugely important, irreplaceable national resource. We are working on a plan to deliver on that commitment, and I know that my right hon. Friend, not least in her role as president of her local branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, will continue to press the Government to make sure that we deliver on it.
I know that HS2 has been of great concern to my right hon. Friend, and she has consistently campaigned on it. I would like to reassure her that HS2 Ltd and its contractors are taking extensive action to mitigate the impacts of the scheme on the area of outstanding natural beauty. HS2 Limited and its contractors continue to engage extensively with communities in the area of outstanding natural beauty to ensure that the concerns of those affected are heard.
Besides HS2, a number of proposals could have an impact on my right hon. Friend’s constituency, from possible allocations of land for housing, to local government restructuring. Regarding concerns that Slough’s local housing need surplus will be met by Buckinghamshire, the revised approach does not significantly alter the area’s assessment of need, which will have to be addressed through its own local plan, which should be locally determined. Slough will have to exhaust all opportunities to meet its own housing need in the first instance before approaching any other local authority. Then, if it can demonstrate that it has exhausted its own opportunities, it will need to agree to work collaboratively to produce a statement of common ground. None of those processes will in any way change the protection for the AONB.
The additional development that the Oxford-Cambridge corridor will bring is an exciting opportunity for the area. My hon. Friend Iain Stewart was recently appointed a champion for this ambitious project, and will work with local partners to deliver it. I can confirm that we are working with all partners, and above all, across Government, to ensure that a joined-up approach is taken to this development.
On local government restructuring, my right hon. Friend raised a point about the sustainability of the local council. I note there is a general consensus that the status quo is no longer an option. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government will continue to engage with her and her colleagues on this issue.
My right hon. Friend has shown that consensus does not necessarily exist. I will take her comments on board and pass them on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and make sure he is aware of her views. I thank her for bringing all of the points in this very important debate to the attention of the House, and particularly to me and my Department, but I repeat that we will maintain strong protections for areas of outstanding natural beauty in our national policy, because of course no area of our country could represent outstanding natural beauty like my right hon. Friend’s constituency. The Government have a bold and ambitious agenda to build a lot more homes, with necessary infrastructure to help support jobs and prosperity, and that should not be at the cost of the environment.
I am sorry to press the Minister, who I understand is fresh to this particular brief, but I wonder whether he could help me. One of the things that is concerning us greatly in Buckinghamshire is that if the NIC proposals go ahead, an amazing amount of co-ordination will need to be carried out between his own Department, the Department for Transport, the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care—all those Departments that feed into something which is going to be, as I described it, a potential extra city. How does he envisage that being drawn together? Will the role of my hon. Friend Iain Stewart in his new appointment be to co-ordinate Government Departments? If the Minister cannot answer that question at the moment, would he take that away and write to me about how the Government envisage really bringing this whole project together?
My right hon. Friend correctly says that our hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South is being put into that role as champion for the Ox-Cam corridor to co-ordinate Government action across Departments and, most specifically, to work with local authorities to ensure that they take a co-ordinated approach to the proposed long-term development plan. In a very astute way, she identifies the real challenge the Government face with these large development plans driving economic development forward. It is imperative that we ensure that all Departments—Health, Education, Transport and the other Departments she mentions—work together to ameliorate, to some extent, the impact of such development in those areas. I will happily write to my right hon. Friend following this debate to set out in more detail our plans to do so. I will also happily meet her and representatives of her local authority to talk about these issues in greater detail, if that could be of assistance.
The Government have made a pledge that we will be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than we inherited it. We are also committed to keeping the safe and attractive landscape of our countryside for future generations to enjoy. As someone who recently became a father—my son is now 10 months old—I do not think that there could be a more important issue for us all to campaign on in this House to ensure that the environment we pass on to our children and their children is one that we can all be proud of and continue to enjoy.
Question put and agreed to.