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Planning — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:40 am on 13th October 2011.

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Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour 11:40 am, 13th October 2011

My Lords, in contemplating the consultation document on planning reform published by the Government, I start by saying that in principle, and in general, I am actually with the Government on this issue, although I may differ on a few points-the two most important being brownfield and on how local the decision-making should be. I am pro-development and if I do not always use the prefix "sustainable", you must add it in. To me, it means the water, the transport, the density, the schools, jobs and GPs; for housing, it means mixing the tenures and affordability. In fact, it is about what has been discussed in the Localism Bill-sustainable communities and how to plan for them.

Ministers have had a torrid time from their friends at the Daily Telegraph, the owners of which are not really entitled to a view on this issue from their offshore island. There has been much misleading hype from the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. I do not think they believe everything they put out. As Planning Minister, I had disagreements with them, but they did not feel they had to resort to hype on the current scale. We have to realise that it is a draft policy framework and we do not always need to blame the communications-sometimes we need to look again at the message. In this respect, I have some helpful advice for Ministers. Cut out the petty party points and do not insult those who oppose you. Above all, do not ignore what has been done before by other political parties.

When I was at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2002-05, with the then Deputy Prime Minister, we set about delivering a genuine policy for growth which was controlled and sustainable. The principles were set out in the February 2003 communities plan. We were, as we said at the time, able to build on previous work by John Gummer-now the noble Lord, Lord Deben, in this House-who had the courage to rework the policy regarding out-of-town retail developments in order to encourage city centre growth and prevent sprawl; and on that of the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, who had created the Thames Gateway. Both were visionaries, and we said so at the time as we promoted our communities plan. The Minister could well take a look at the ideas, content and explanations in the plan published by the noble Lord, Lord Prescott. It is not perfect but they can learn from it. Indeed, I suspect that many of the same civil servants who worked on that plan are still around working for the Minister.

The policy is about England. So, let us get the facts. Over 90 per cent of the land of England is not built on. National parks account for 9 per cent; designated areas of outstanding natural beauty account for 15 per cent; the green belt accounts for 13 per cent; urban developments-the roads and everything-are 9 per cent. That is a total of 46 per cent. From memory, when I was at the relevant department, the land that was thought needed for development-housing and other infrastructure-was about 1 per cent. So, what on earth is the problem? That is all we are talking about in terms of the scope of the land of England for proper development. The last Government managed to leave behind more green belt than they inherited, two new national parks and sustainable development-even though I do not think there was enough of it.

The draft planning policy nowhere near seeks to destroy our countryside, areas of outstanding natural beauty, the green belt or our vast open countryside. Those are the facts-it cannot do that given the amount of land that is required. We need to get real on this matter. I accept that we have to be very careful in the use of land. There was a time in the south-east-the region most deprived of brownfield sites; I will come back to that-when dwellings were averaging only 22 per hectare on greenfield sites. That led to a density directive stipulating a minimum of 30 dwellings per hectare, although I think that that is too low in any event. There are countless examples, set out in publications, of very high-quality housing in this country at much higher densities, indeed more than double that rate. This should not lead to room sizes so small that living space is compromised and specially made small furniture needs to fitted in the show houses as a disguise.

The green belt, which is what a lot of the debate is wrongly about, is what I sometimes used to call-I know people got annoyed about it-rubbish land. It is the collar around the urban areas to prevent sprawl. That is what it actually is. The urban fringe is not nice in most areas. By definition it is touching up on the urban areas. I know farmers who suffer on the urban fringe from the dumping of rubbish, even supermarket trolleys, in fields about to be machine-harvested.

In the communities plan we took the view that to obtain sustainable growth it is sometimes necessary to have the odd incursion into the green belt, but with a commitment to designate more than was taken. That can easily be done now. You might, for example, need a new bridge over a river or a railway line to get access to land for development that would not otherwise be available. It builds on what is already there in communities-it is not necessarily greenfield, open-span development; it is adding to towns and cities.

In fact, we had a specific plan, which I do not see anywhere in this policy, for greening the sustainable development. It was quite separate. I was reminded of it earlier this week when I got an invitation to celebrate the first 20 years of the Forest of Marston Vale in December. That was a project high on our greening list of areas to green as we were also intensively developing them.

City centres need to be vibrant places for people to live, work and play. We do not want any closed-off areas and no-go areas at weekends and in the evenings. But you need planning and management to achieve that. You also need to restrict out-of-town greenfield growth, and, in my view, you need to do it for both retail and offices. It needs a very positive approach to maintain our city centre areas. I recall on one occasion-I have never visited the site-when an Ikea was built on top of its car park rather than waste the land alongside for the car park. It did not happen by accident, and it was not the first choice, but it was a solution that prevented taking too much land.

Much of the debate has been about rural areas and I suspect that we will get some of that this morning. I do not see rural areas like the lid of a chocolate box. That is not to say that I want to concrete over them, far from it; but I do not have that romantic view. These areas are where millions of our fellow citizens live. There is a lot of hidden deprivation in rural areas with job losses, poor transport and everything else.

Small towns and villages die and become residential dormitories if they are not replenished by encouraging the reuse of old buildings and allowing new activities to replace older ones. We should not have to wonder why the shops, the banks, the schools, even the pubs go. You lose what you do not use. Young people are forced away to start a life and a family in the big cities and therefore these places die. You lose the children, you lose the school. It's not rocket science.

This does not mean that villages need to be swamped by massive new additions. They sometimes need no more than a handful of new homes for local people, maybe just by infilling the boundaries of the small villages and towns. I recall going to see the leaders of one area to push for growth-it was in Buckinghamshire but I will not mention the town; it certainly was not my political area, I went there as the Minister. I had to sell them growth. To my surprise they had embraced the planned growth because towns to the south of them in the M4 corridor were taking off in growth and their town was dying.

We pumped capital into the town to pump prime and developers did the rest at the outer edges of the town. The town grew considerably. This plan in turn was used by the leaders-which was a surprise to me, and I used it elsewhere. They said, "We'll grow our town because if we have a plan for growth we can oppose the developments in 100 villages in our county that are way beyond what is needed. We can go to planning appeals and say that the growth is there in our county because we are deliberately growing our towns. We can stop the pepperpotting among the villages". I thought that that was a very positive approach to development because it meant more sustainable growth and a lot less commuting.

One of my central points-and I do not think that it is in the policy; there is too much hope in the policy-is that growth has to be driven. I do not think that the issues will be addressed by the locality. Sustainability will not come from local decision-making. Nobody at that level sees the big picture when you are planning growth-and you have to plan, otherwise the infrastructure does not appear. That is one of the key issues. Large new housing without infrastructure is bad. We have done it in the past and we know where the failures are. Has anybody ever wondered why parish councils do not do planning? It is self-evident. The answer is there. So do not force the local decision-making so low that you get a complete log jam. You have to have discussion, co-operation, partnership and sensitivity. That is crucial in a modern democracy. We are not like France, which has a different planning system; the Government decide what they are doing and it gets done. Nothing will happen if the decision-making is too close to the developments. That is an area where some work has to be done on the policy.

I shall deal just briefly with agricultural land. Ministers could again learn from the past; they would do very well to dig out in Defra a web-based report on barriers to diversification by farmers. The key barriers were identified as planning and business education. So we need a presumption in my view on the reuse of redundant buildings in the countryside, with a limit-maybe double the floor area-to allow new developments for jobs and enterprise. It is no good planners saying, "Use the old building as it is, or not", because the "not" will win out and you will get no development and you will get dereliction. The level of planner interference sometimes knows no bounds. A farm with holiday cottages and physical activities for city folk, such as climbing frames and skateboarding down hills, fell foul of planners because of the roof shape of the shed used for storage. It was at the bottom of a slope 30 feet below the road, where it could not be seen because of the hedge. The farmer put a sloping roof on a 10x10 shed, and the planner said, "Oi, you've got to get that off-I want a pitched roof!". It is ridiculous the way that planners interfere with their personal views at this level.

One final area that I raise on the countryside is on the permanent show grounds around the country. They are used for shows other than agricultural shows, but they have an inbuilt infrastructure and, in my view, there should be a presumption for building indoor recreation and sports activities as a norm on such sites. Sometimes they are alongside a golf course, so why should you not have indoor sports facilities on some of these grounds? They have the infrastructure; it helps to make them viable and sustainable, because the infrastructure already exists.

Finally, I turn to the subject of brownfield, which is referred to in detail in the impact assessment. There must be a policy that encourages brownfield on previously developed land. I agree that the policy for housing targets on brownfield, first established in 1995 and carried on till the present day, is too rigid. It does not fit all the circumstances in the country. I was once a factory manager in Surrey, and there ain't a lot of brownfield land in Surrey born out of our industrial revolution there. Ten years ago, the National Land Use Database identified 66,000 hectares of brownfield capable of redevelopment. Remediation was at about 1,000 hectares a year. I simply do not see how that can have dried up, as has been claimed, given the amount of land that was there 10 years ago. Of course, greenfield is cheaper, but brownfield is virtually always more sustainable given its location. We know that there are developers who have made a real business out of developing brownfield, and with affordable housing, including the Berkeley Group and Urban Splash, which are leaders and innovators regarding redundant buildings such as waterworks, offices and factories for new homes. As an aside, I do not think that ex-factories and ex-offices should have to have planning permission to be converted to housing. By definition they were occupied by hundreds or thousands of people in the past; the road infrastructure and everything is always there. It is a bit different for sewer works and waterworks, and things like that, but I think that people should be able to get on and do it. Brindleyplace in Birmingham was built without planning permission, right in the centre, with offices, shops and everything, because it was that kind of zone, which was designated. So it can be done.

The Minister has to find a middle way between the two extremes. The final policy has to include encouraging the use of brownfield. It will remove a major plank from the sometimes misleading opposition to the draft policy. It is a draft-and what draft cannot be improved? But the central thrust should remain a presumption in favour of sustainable development. It is not a plan to concrete over our manmade countryside or destroy the quality designated areas. Those who claim this are plain wrong, in my view.

I encourage the Minister to look again at the work of the three noble Lords in the past. Things go off the boil as Ministers change and civil servants come and go. Things need driving, and I discovered that as one of the issues relating to this area of policy. If you do not drive it forward from the centre-it is not all top-down-it goes off the boil locally, and then you are at the behest of the personal views of planning inspectors and planners, who have caused us major problems in stopping sustainable development in this country.

We do not need to start again. Use the work of others. Find a way to explain and communicate. The principle of planned growth is right, and I applaud the fact that the Government have continued to do this. But they have got to change some aspects of the policy level, and use some good ideas from previous Tory and Labour Administrations. There were some good ideas, so you do not have to start again with a clean sheet of paper. I beg to move.