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.