With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendment 52.
Amendment 97, in clause 13, page 16, line 1, leave out from ‘apply’ to the end of line 3 and add
‘in relation to an application under section 15(1) of the Commons Act 2006 which—
(a) is sent before the day on which this section comes into force, or
(b) is in an area which is not covered by an adopted local plan or an adopted neighbourhood development plan.’.
Amendment 98, page 40, schedule 4, leave out lines 21 to 27.
Amendment 99, page 40, schedule 4, leave out lines 38 to 47.
Amendment 100, page 41, schedule 4, leave out lines 27 to 34.
It is a pleasure, Mr Howarth, to serve under your chairmanship again.
This group of amendments addresses when and why a piece of land should become excluded from registration as a town or village green. The basic premise of clause 13 and schedule 4 is right, but the Minister may have been a little over-zealous and ruled out all land from ever being protected.
Clause 13 gives the Secretary of State the ability to disapply the triggers from a specific piece of land. Amendment 96 would put a requirement on the Secretary of State to set out in published criteria his reasons for choosing to do that. Here we are again—the Secretary of State is grabbing power without setting out his reasoning. He has long lauded transparency and openness, so it is baffling to say the least. There may be pieces of land that should be exempt, but we need to be clear about what the instances are, not least because without that clarity we may not see any improvement in the current situation; community groups will simply turn to the Secretary of State to exclude their piece of land from the triggers to lodge an application.
This would be an ideal place to introduce consultation, whereby local authorities, some of which have clearly had a number of issues with some town and village green applications, could set out examples of when a town or village green was rightly protected. Similarly, aggrieved community groups, which work extremely hard to protect spaces that they believe deserve protection, would have the chance to advise the Secretary of State of the circumstances that should lead to an exemption from the triggers set out in schedule 4.
I am reluctant to ask for more consultation, because on this Bill we seem to have consultation documents coming out of our ears, but it is important in this instance that clear criteria are drawn up on the basis of responses from people on the front line of making applications for village green status. The Minister could help with our deliberations this morning by setting out instances when the Secretary of State may choose to use the power, or at least giving a commitment to consultation, which would enable him to respond in an informed way.
I turn to amendment 97. Evidence to the Committee made it clear that there are inherent tensions in having the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and the Commons Act 2006 running in parallel. The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks, was kind enough in his evidence to quote from a report commissioned by the last Labour Government from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2009. It stated that
“the most significant finding from this research so far is the existence of two parallel systems between which there is minimal communication: the” town and village green
“registration process and planning system. In our view this seems to be problematic…the processes in each system rarely…take explicit account of issues/decisions in the parallel system, even though they can have significant importance for each other.”
That is true, but without amendment the clause could compound the problem.
When a local or neighbourhood plan has been put in place and the community has been adequately consulted, and we have said several times in Committee that that is not necessarily easy or straightforward, the community is likely to have placed protections on their most valued green space. We accept that where there is a neighbourhood plan and there has been good consultation, that is likely to be the case. However, where that has not taken place the community will not have been through the process of identifying the areas they deem to be most valuable. I am sure we can all come up with instances from our constituencies of communities not being aware of the need to submit a village green application until they see a planning application because they are unaware that it is necessary to do so, or that a particular piece of land could ever be under threat from development.
Without the amendment, communities could find that by the time they have their say on a local or neighbourhood plan the precious spaces they want to protect have already been snapped up. Some members of the Committee seem to be under the impression that if an area is worth developing it will have a neighbourhood plan in place, but that is simply not the case. We wish to encourage neighbourhoods to put in place a neighbourhood plan, but there simply has not been time for them to do that since the Localism Act 2011 was enacted.
When creating previous plans, parish councils may not have considered the issue in enough detail. It is important that local communities have the opportunity and enough time to identify sites they wish to protect. They can then decide which process is most appropriate for them. We want to move to a situation where those pieces of land are designated under a neighbourhood plan process. In the meantime, we want to make sure all communities are able to use the registration processes that are in place at the moment.
Local plans are intended to ensure that we get development in the right places and with community support. To take the right to protect land away from communities before the plan-making process has even begun is no way to foster their trust. I urge the Minister to take the amendment away and look at it. We do not want to stop vexatious applications being identified. However, we want to ensure that communities that have not yet identified those very special open spaces are not prevented from being able to protect them simply because they do not know that they are under threat.
Amendments 98, 99 and 100 deal with the trigger events in schedule 4. When one of the eight trigger events that are set out in the schedule takes place regarding a piece of land, that land can no longer be registered as a town or village green. The amendments seek to remove the three triggers that we think go too far. As hon. Members might imagine, we have come up with a phrase for the schedule: the Secretary of the State has been trigger happy. He has been listing lots and lots of triggers. We think, “Hang on a minute. We want to reduce some of those triggers.”
Amendment 98 would remove the publication of a draft development plan as one of the triggers for the same reasons we talked about for clause 12 and now for clause 13. A draft development plan will not necessarily have been through all the processes of consultation. Simply having a draft plan in place should not prevent communities from being able to bring forward an application for a village green. The draft plan should simply highlight to communities that a site may be at risk from development and it will enable them to put their views forward. We think that is much too early in the development process to rule out the opportunity to propose a particular piece of land. Amendment 99 would remove the publication of a draft neighbourhood development plan as a trigger for exactly the same reasons. Amendment 100 would remove an application for development consent as a trigger.
All three amendments relate to events that do not have to be public and to documents that might not have been consulted on. The whole point of consultation over a draft plan or planning application is to ensure that the community is on board and to see if more suitable changes can be made. As such, consultation is an important stage and should not be bypassed by any trigger event.
We all know that the Minister, as I have said, is keen on consultations, particularly those that come late in the day. We do not mind. It is not something I would suggest or write down as good practice to be adopted by Ministers, but if we are to have from the Minister consultations that appear minutes before the Committee sits to consider them, I think he should allow us to make a plea for consultation on such an important set of circumstances, which could reduce the ability of communities to apply for village greens. We want a consultation on the triggers.
We also want to ensure that whatever process we end up with and whatever trigger events are in place to prevent the registration of village greens, there is proper consultation on them through neighbourhood plans, local plans or applications for development consent. The Opposition do not want to deprive communities of the right to submit a village green application in the large number of instances outlined in schedule 4. We know that there is a need to rationalise the process somewhat, but schedule 4 goes much too far in denigrating the rights of local communities.
The three trigger events covered by the amendments are tantamount to saying that consultation, to get development consent through the documents, is nothing more than due process. Otherwise we have no idea why they were included in the list of trigger events. In reality, it is hardly unknown that a piece of land identified for development in a draft plan is removed when the public are able to express their views. Often enough, a replacement piece of land can be identified instead.
I give an example from my constituency; I am sure that other hon. Members have similar examples. It relates to the building of a school in my constituency, which everyone wanted. The county council, unbeknown to anyone, decided that it wanted to build the school not on the site of the existing school, but on a piece of green land in the middle of the village that had served as a leisure and recreation space for as many years as people could remember. The community had not previously applied to have that piece of land included as a village green, because no one ever thought that it would be under any threat whatsoever. In fact, through a period of negotiation that I was involved in, along with local and parish councillors, a residents group was set up to protect the green space and, critically, to identify another more appropriate site where the school could be built. It was possible. It did not really slow down the development of the new school, because all the other meetings and consultations about the new school being built were dealt with at the same time.
It was possible to work with the local authority and eventually, within the time frame that the council had set out, we managed to get the new school on another site that the community was happy with. It was possible to register the village green, and in the process the community decided that it wanted a new children’s play area, so we were able to put another group together to work on that.
My point in going through that example is that under the Bill’s proposals it simply would not have been possible to go through such a process, because once the county council had applied for development consent, that would have been the end of the process. We had a harmonious outcome that served the needs of the county council and the local community very well. There is simply no need to go down the drastic route that I think the Minister and the Government are suggesting under schedule 4.
We want triggers where the Secretary of State or the local authority can step in if they think that an application is vexatious. There are still five triggers left in schedule 4. However, this is a heartfelt plea from me to the Minister and his team. I do not want communities to find out too late that a bit of land that is really important to them as an open and green space is going to be developed simply because it is in a draft document, and that they are no longer able to go through the registration process either as it exists under current legislation or as is set out with regard to neighbourhood plans.
The triggers have seriously worried many campaigners. The County Durham local access forum wrote to me. We know that the Open Spaces Society is terribly concerned about the inclusion of triggers. Similarly, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Ramblers, and the Friends of the Lake District all support a smaller set of trigger events. Those organisations are not being hysterical and unreasonable. They have looked at the provisions in the schedule, particularly the large number of trigger events.
The amendment would be a very minor change to the legislation. It would still provide the Secretary of State with lots of circumstances in which he could step in to take a village green out of the registration process. It would ensure that local communities are given time. When they see an important piece of land in a draft development plan or someone seeking development consent on it, they would be able to make their views known and decide whether it is reasonable for them to go ahead and register the piece of land.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Howarth. It is good to be back for the Committee’s final week. I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham, whose arguments are supported by organisations such as the Open Spaces Society, the CPRE and others. At the heart of the clause and the group of amendments is the balance between local community interests and the interests of development, which is always difficult to achieve. My hon. Friend’s amendments would help to improve that balance. I want to highlight some of the huge concerns of local groups up and down the country, as well as national organisations representing community and, in particular, rural interests.
Bristol Parks Forum submitted evidence about Whitchurch village green, and how it was registered as a town green after it was shown that it had been used as a right for more than 20 years. It had been earmarked for development, and planning applications were sought. The forum fears that those measures would shift the balance of risk against local organisations and communities holding valued green space.
The National Organisation of Residents Associations said that clauses 11, 12 and 13
“appear to grant rights to landowners designed to reduce the ability of the community to protect its rights over common land.”
The rights to such common land go back centuries. It continued:
“Current legislation permits open argument over the rights to use common land, and we fear that these clauses will hazard the use by the community of green open space in their environment.”
Those concerns were expressed by groups that are used to defending the interests of local people.
The Woodland Trust said that it
“has grave concerns about the viability of this measure and feels that it will undermine the ability of local communities to protect their green spaces from unwanted developments, including, from our experience valuable ancient woods and important natural habitats.”
It is very important that our woodland and green space is protected into the future. It is about getting the balance right; we need development, but we also need protection, and the issue is where the balance is applied. That is why it is important that these words of caution and concern, made up and down the land by groups involved in these activities for many years, are properly listened to and heard at this point in the decision-making process, so that the Minister and his team can reflect hard on whether the balance is correct.
The Wildlife and Countryside Link says that clause 13
“sets out ‘trigger events’ that can suspend the right to register land as a green. However, almost all of the proposed trigger events are such that the public will not know about them until they have occurred, and it is then too late to submit an application to register a green.”
That is the nub of the issue. If designation for development happens without anybody knowing about it, and they only realise the risk to their green and pleasant bits of land at the time of development, there is a risk that we might get the balance wrong. As my hon. Friend said in her example of school development, proper engagement with communities can result in better outcomes not only for communities but for development itself.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case on why we must remove these triggers. Does he agree that the timing for the Government’s introduction of these measures is completely wrong? Neighbourhood planning has not been rolled out enough or properly resourced across the country for neighbourhoods to know that they can protect and designate green spaces. At the very least, the Government should not be seeking to do this for some years.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. As the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis pointed out last week, the neighbourhood planning process has the capability and potential to put everything together in a way that will manage the issues appropriately. However, as my hon. Friend has just pointed out, it is immature—it is in its infancy. In certain areas, it is well-developed, but in many others, it is completely underdeveloped and unknown to local communities. We are in a period of transition and change, and that is when risk is greatest.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that although neighbourhood planning is new in that it provides statutory powers, such things as village design statements have been in place in many councils for a long time? In those instances, the local situation is already being looked at and designation is suggested, as opposed to overriding the district council?
The hon. Lady is right and makes a good point, but if we were to map where village designs are, we would see that in some areas of the country, there are good concentrations of village design in place, while in others, it is less effective. It is patchy, and we should not imperil communities that have taken areas of green open space for granted for many years. They may not have taken advantage of the opportunities, and they could suddenly find that the designation has changed, only realising when the development is taking place. Such communities should not be penalised; they should be treated equally and fairly. At a point of transition and development, it is particularly important that we strain every sinew to get it right, ensuring that the appropriate protections are in place, so that communities can represent their interests in order to protect their green open spaces, rather than find that they should have done something some years ago, when some of them were not living there and did not know what has happening. They may discover that they have lost an opportunity, because they did not realise that they had it at the time. That is a crucial point.
“Link believes that this is a far too heavy-handed approach, and one that will kill off genuine applications.”
I stress “heavy-handed”, and that it will “kill off genuine applications”, because that is the real concern. We need to ensure that we do not accidentally create future problems by acting in haste now, because of an urgency of the moment that has been identified, which would imperil green open spaces.
My hon. Friend makes a strong case, but I want to highlight the reasonableness of many of the organisations that he has cited. Does he agree that it is wrong to categorise the argument as one in which it is said that either no action should be taken, or that the action taken should be what is proposed by the Government? The organisations that have expressed concerns recognise the points that Penfold made, broadly endorsing that approach, but they are concerned that the proposals go too far. Does he agree that if the Government were to rethink the issue and draw up proposals that are much closer to Penfold’s recommendations, it would alleviate many of the organisations’ concerns?
My hon. Friend is right. Such organisations do not want to do battle. By their nature, they are the lifeblood of Great British society; that is where they belong and where they are. They are reasonable and they recognise that the Penfold proposals would do much to reduce—or indeed, eliminate—the opportunity for vexatious applications. I think, however, that the Government are probably overplaying the nature of vexatious applications. Although nobody wants such applications—the Committee is unanimous on that point—it is sometimes in people’s interests to exaggerate the threat of certain conditions to rush through changes that we may regret at leisure if we get it wrong. As Andrew Motion pointed out at the weekend, once a green space is built on, it “is gone for ever”. I note that the Minister is smiling as I refer to the former poet laureate, who is now doing a very good job as chair of the CPRE.
Let me conclude by reminding hon. Members of the witness evidence that we heard. Ingrid Samuel of the National Trust said:
“One of our concerns is that it is quite difficult to predict the impact of these clauses on public open spaces and towns and village greens.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 20 November 2012; c. 155, Q357.]
This is all about impact. If we get it wrong, those green spaces will be lost for ever—the chair of the CPRE is right. That will not only be to our detriment today, but to the detriment of future generations for ever.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson of Friends of the Earth told us:
“I think it sends the wrong signal. Town and village green spaces are incredibly important to sustainable communities.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 20 November 2012; c. 156, Q357.]
We need to recognise that these are very valuable commodities to communities. They are very important now and will be very important in the future.
Shaun Spiers of the CPRE told us:
“The way the Bill is drafted, however, more or less removes any possibility that anyone would be able to get town and village green status for a site, so it puts the balance far too much against local people trying to protect green space.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 20 November 2012; c. 141, Q320.]
This is all about balance, protection, green space and development. I do not believe that Ministers are trying to get the balance wrong; I do not believe that that is the intention, but often we are caught—bitten—by unintended consequences. The purpose of this debate is to make it clear that we fear such consequences.
My hon. Friend outlines very clearly for the Committee some of the issues that will arise. Has he noticed that the impact assessment actually allows for unintended consequences? It says:
“Any unintended consequences of the reforms will be monitored through the continuation of the biennial Town and Village Green application activity survey of commons registration authorities.”
Does he agree that the unintended consequences are likely to be village greens and open spaces going, which is not acceptable? It is what we are seeking to avoid with the amendments.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. They may be unintended consequences, but they are highly predictable. We can see what they will be, and they are things that we would all regret. We should take action now to get the balance right. The leaders of bodies such as the CPRE, the Woodland Trust and the National Trust should not have to say these things. These bodies are concerned to protect our natural assets and they have huge experience and expertise, which we ignore at our peril. They should not have to say, as Mr Spiers said to us, that the Bill’s drafting
“puts the balance far too much against local people trying to protect green space.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 20 November 2012; c. 141, Q320.]
Those are important words, and we need to ensure that we get the balance right. Although the monitoring of unintended consequences is to be welcomed, we do not want to find ourselves in the future saying, “I told you so.” That is not where we want to be. We want to be in a place where we get the balance right now and we get rid of the vexatious use of town and village green designations. We need to eliminate that, but we also need to get the balance right so that we do not damage our green and pleasant land and our communities in the meantime.
I, too, welcome you back to the Chair, Mr Howarth. You have returned, if I may say so, to hear some pretty wild language this morning. The Government have been accused of being over-zealous, grabbing power and being heavy-handed and trigger happy. Those are just some of the epithets that I noticed. This clause, as I hope I made clear in the clause 12 stand part debate, is about protecting the integrity of the planning system. I remind the Committee that these clauses have the wholehearted support of the Local Government Association. I reassure the Committee that the principle at the heart of clause 13 and supporting schedule 4 is entirely reasonable. Decisions about the future of land—whether land should be developed or kept open—should be taken through the democratically accountable planning system, where all views can be heard and a balanced, sustainable decision can be reached.
We have heard much this morning about the need for the decision to be balanced. The current situation is indefensible. It is not right that, where a community wants to see affordable homes or a new manufacturing facility or a new school and agrees to that, its democratic decision can be blocked by an application to register land as a town or village green. The purpose of our reforms is not to stop all town or village green applications, but simply to stop town or village green applications being used where a planning permission has been granted or where a planning application has been publicised and the decision is still to be made.
With respect, the Minister is old enough to remember the memorable speech by the former leader of his party, the previous Conservative Prime Minister, who spoke about warm beer, swallows overhead and cricket on the village green. Does the Minister not feel that this part of the Bill on village greens does not take us back to basics, as that Prime Minister would have wanted, but is a betrayal of the great British people and his predecessors?
No. The hon. Gentleman does Sir John Major a disservice. He was a strong upholder and supporter of local government, he served in local government and in his time as Prime Minister he certainly did his bit to protect the local government system, and that is what we are trying to do. These reforms will prevent applications to register land as a green where the land is identified for potential development in local and neighbourhood plans, including draft plans on which the local community is consulted.
We have listened to the concerns of those who think that this issue is a priority, such as the Hastoe Group, which is working hard to provide people with affordable homes, the National Housing Federation and the British Property Federation, which is why organisations as diverse as those groups, and many others too, all underline the urgent need to reform the greens registration process. The Local Government Association said in its briefing note:
“The current financial climate makes the resolution of this issue”— using greens legislation to block development—
“more urgent than ever as delays can render new local growth initiatives and housing developments unviable, completely stalling such projects.”
Let me turn in more detail to the Opposition amendments before coming to Government amendment 52. Amendment 96, which was tabled by the hon. Member for City of Durham, would require the Secretary of State to consult whenever he makes an order to change the particular circumstances in which a town or village green application could go ahead, when it would otherwise have been prevented. I appreciate the importance of consultation, but I also believe in avoiding unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape where we can. The amendment would mean that on any occasion, for whatever reason and however trivial the change, the Government would be required to carry out consultation. Consultation is not a cost-free option and at times it simply may not be necessary. We need to be discerning and consult when there is something substantial to consult on. Future Secretaries of State should not be required to consult on something so minor that no one wants to be consulted on it.
Amendments 97 to 100 further complicate the interaction between the two systems—town and village green applications and the planning system—that we are trying to simplify. They would undermine the ability of local communities to support and promote development in their areas through local and neighbourhood plan making. They would put at risk the renewal in infrastructure that we need to support sustainable growth, and I shall explain why.
Amendment 97 would limit the new provisions to areas where there is an adopted local plan or a neighbourhood development plan, meaning that applications to register land as a town or village green could be made while the local or neighbourhood plan was being consulted on. I should remind the Committee that the plan-making process already provides for consultation and should not be undermined by the quite separate process of town and village green registration. I am not sure whether this is the intention of the hon. Member for City of Durham, but decisions about the future use of the land would not then be taken through the plan-making process; they would be decided on the back of an application to register land as a green.
Good progress is being made in local plan making and in the local take-up of neighbourhood planning, but not all places have adopted a local plan. It is for the hon. Lady to explain why people engaged in shaping planning decisions in those areas should be penalised and cut out by the retention of the worst features of the current town and village green application process.
Schedule 4 sets out a number of trigger events, including one at the time a draft plan is publicised, for formal consultation by the local planning authority. That is to allow decisions about the future shape of a community area to be taken through the proper plan-making process. We chose those trigger points at the beginning of the process because that is when local people can make formal representations about whether areas of land should be developed or kept open, taking account of the full range of relevant issues, including by balancing the need for development against environmental concerns. In many cases, communities will have earlier and more informal opportunities to shape the consultation draft.
Decisions on the plan’s content will be made in the public interest, having regard to relevant representations and considerations, including national policy and the protection that that gives to open spaces. It will allow for the identification of land that is wanted for development and of land that is not. It would be wrong to allow applications to register land as a green to cut across that process.
I appreciate that the Minister is outlining the Government’s case in some detail, but does he accept our concern that the first time a village or local community know that their green is under threat might be through the lodging of a draft plan or, indeed, of an application for development? Under schedule 4, the community would have to argue with the local authority and the plan makers, through the consultation process, to have that designation for development taken out of the draft plan. In a sense, their hand will be severely weakened in that negotiation process if they cannot register the green or the space for protection. That is what the amendments are designed to address—the fact that they will not be able to negotiate their case.
Order. Last week, I said that interventions should be brief and not the occasion for a further speech. I hope that the Committee takes note of that. If Members fail to do so, I will take appropriate action.
Thank you, Mr Howarth. I do not doubt the hon. Lady’s intention in tabling the amendments. Indeed, we have been discussing how to get the right balance. However, there is an assumption behind what she has just said that the local community is not involved in the planning process. The local community will be involved and consulted as that process is undertaken. The trigger events are in the right place, I think, at the start of the consultation. If we wait until after the planning decision is taken, the green application can be made in the meantime, which would then take years to consider, and even if unsuccessful, it could still delay or block the development.
Let me turn to the detail of amendments 97 to 100. Amendment 97 would mean that the planning process continued to be subservient to the narrower set of considerations that a green application has to be judged against. That cannot be right. We have the same concerns about amendments 98 and 99, which would significantly undermine the benefits of the changes we are making. I find it hard to believe that Opposition Members really intend to undermine the process of community engagement that is at the heart of local plan making, whether the neighbourhood or the local plan, but that is what amendments 98 and 99 could do. They could close down the opportunity for local people to engage meaningfully in local or neighbourhood planning.
Where an application to register land as a green is made in the middle of the consultation on the plan, amendments 98 and 99 would also stop the local community having their say on whether land should be protected from development or whether the community interest is best served by the land being allocated for development. Were the amendments made, land could, in effect, be registered as a town or village green immediately, and there would be no point in asking the community through the plan-making process whether they want the land in question to be developed. The decision would have been made for them through the determination of the application for the green, regardless of the need for affordable housing, new jobs, or a new school, as the hon. Lady suggested. None of those would have been a factor in the decision to register the land as a green.
Amendment 100 would remove the protection from town or village green applications that we intend to give to major infrastructure projects between the time when a proposed infrastructure application is publicised and, following acceptance by the Secretary of State, an application is publicised again. It appears that Opposition Members agree that protection should apply once an accepted application is publicised, and I welcome that, but if we are to provide the infrastructure that a growing economy needs, it is important to keep the initial trigger event that amendment 100 would delete. Encouraging early community engagement in shaping major infrastructure projects is a good thing, but amendment 100 would undermine that, because as soon the infrastructure promoter published the proposed application, the whole project could be put in jeopardy by an application to register the land as a green. That cannot be sensible and developers will not see it as sensible.
Finally, let me respond to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe, who was concerned that the proposals may threaten the protection of green spaces, especially ancient woodlands. Let me emphasise firmly that the reforms do not affect existing greens. Existing registered greens are unaffected. The national planning policy framework gives strong protection to ancient woodlands. We have introduced the new local green space designation to give stronger protection to valued green spaces when plans are prepared. The hon. Gentleman also suggested that the trigger points may not be right, but the Bill contains powers to amend the trigger events if the system is seen not to be working.
The hon. Member for Sheffield Central suggested that the clause ought to be more in line with what Adrian Penfold recommended. However, Adrian Penfold supported these clauses on 20 November when, fairly modestly, he said:
“What is in the Bill is a better way of dealing with it”— the problem—
“than I came up with.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 20 November 2012; c. 88, Q209.]
He is supportive of the amendments.
I welcome the opportunity to question the Minister on that point. What would he say to the Open Spaces Society, which concurred with the broad thrust of the Penfold recommendations, but asked for the problem to be addressed by tightening existing regulations and guidance, sifting out poor applications, and introducing time scales, instead of in the way the Government are proposing?
I can only repeat what I said a few moments ago on clause 12 stand part. We all want to reduce vexatious applications, but. more important than that, we have to ensure that the application process for registering new greens does not further undermine the existing planning process, which balances the interests of the community in development against their interests in preserving their local environment. We must tackle that central problem.
In asking the hon. Member to withdraw amendment 96, I should explain the purpose of Government amendment 52, which is a technical amendment, so I will be brief. On commencement, clause 13 prevents development that is permitted or proposed within the planning system from being stymied because of a new application to register. That is achieved through a series of trigger and terminating events set out in schedule 4, as we have discussed. When a trigger event has occurred, no application may be made in respect of that land. Trigger events have corresponding terminating events, which provide that a town or village green application can again be made. To provide future flexibility, the clause also enables the Secretary of State by order to add to or amend the schedule. This minor technical amendment is required to ensure that when a new trigger or terminating event is added by order, we can make provision for events that took place before the order came into force to have effect. The aim is to ensure that if, for example, additional terminating events are needed, the registration of land as a green will still be possible when there is no longer any development permitted or proposed on it.
If Opposition Members do not agree with me about the other amendments, I hope that they will see the sense in Government amendment 52, which is a technical improvement.
I am not sure that I consider Government amendment 52 to be minor and technical if it allows the Secretary of State to add to the trigger events, but as I understand “by order”, there will be an opportunity for Parliament to scrutinise such measures later.
I am disappointed with the Minister’s response to the amendments. The Government’s argument is particularly weak, because it appears to come down to the fact that because there may consultation on a local plan or neighbourhood plan, or because there is a period for communities to comment on a development application, there cannot be a simultaneous discussion about the registration of a village green. That seems bizarre and wholly remote from what would happen in reality. The suggestion that up and down the country, greens are being registered willy-nilly without the local community knowing anything about it is frankly ridiculous.
For the sake of protecting communities and their greens, I urge the Minister to take the matter away and to think about it again. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment made: 52, in clause 13, page 15, line 34, at end insert—
‘( ) The transitional provision that may be included in an order under subsection (5)(a) specifying an additional trigger or terminating event includes provision for this section to apply where such an event has occurred before the order is made or before it comes into force and as to its application in such a case.’.—(Michael Fallon.)
Although we have discussed the clause quite a lot already, I want to make a few comments on clause stand part. The Committee can see from the amendments tabled so far that it is our view that the Minister’s Department has perhaps gone too far. He seems to have assumed that all town and village green applications are submitted to stop development. Although we have queries about the impact assessment, it nevertheless sets out the clear case that about 30% to 50% of applications are submitted as a result of a planning application and that 5% to 15% are in areas already covered by a local plan. Even if we assumed, perhaps incorrectly, that none of the applications submitted in response to the planning application was in an area covered by a local plan, about 30% of applications for town and village green status would still be considered genuine but would be ruled out under this set of circumstances.
I remind the Minister that town and village greens are not necessarily the enemy of enterprise that they are being presented as in this Committee. Many people really treasure their local green and want to keep it there for future generations to enjoy. In fact, town and village greens can be hugely beneficial. Friends of the Earth said:
“Town and village greens are important components of sustainable communities. Exemplary ‘green’ developments particularly in Freiburg (Germany), include shared green space for a given number of properties to include wildlife, play and recreational space.”
That type of thinking is not reflected in the Government’s comments.
Does the hon. Lady not agree that she could substitute “town and village greens” with the words “local green space” which is the provision in the Localism Act 2011 and which would allow her people who thought that they had just discovered such a space to register it via the procedure in the Localism Act? It is extremely difficult to understand what she is saying by way of distinguishing those two cases. Is not it simply a matter of tidying up and providing a much better procedure through the Localism Act?
If the right hon. Gentleman had been listening earlier, he would have known that I dealt with that point. Indeed if the neighbourhood planning process was rolled out right across the country, if that had been happening for a number of years and if it had been properly resourced or was to be properly resourced in the future, then he might have a case; we have already conceded that. The point is that, in the real world, neighbourhood planning has not been rolled out uniformly and is not adequately resourced, so at this point in time, it cannot be used as a reason to remove the important protections for communities that are there at the moment. The Minister may shake his head, but I look forward to writing to him with the first case, because, at some stage in the future, we will find that we do not have time to put in place a neighbourhood plan before a green space is threatened.
This is what we know: in its report, Friends of the Earth says that
“There has been a reported loss in almost all the authorities surveyed in the report of green space in urban areas. More of these spaces should be created rather than less, and local authorities should ensure that protected green spaces are an integral part of their local plans and of any new development over a certain size. Green space is also vital for adaptation and for the enhancement of biodiversity.''
I urge the Minister to look at what has been said by CPRE and others about using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. We know that greens have benefits.
I should like to raise some questions about how the impact of the clause has been assessed. There is no reference in the impact assessment of the value to public health or well-being of having access to green space. The Minister might say that that is too abstract for an impact assessment—a Government document—but I contend that it is no more abstract than calculating the benefits that will accrue as the result of developing village greens, especially when the Government simply have not considered the downside of such a designation. For example, the impact assessment cites the
“avoidance of land value depreciation” as a substantial side effect, but the problem is not that the land would otherwise depreciate, but that it will appreciate if planning permission is granted. The two are very different, but are not separated in the impact assessment.
Furthermore, due to other reforms the Minister is pushing—particularly the removal of affordable housing developments in 106 agreements for development in particular circumstances—benefits to the local community in terms of affordable housing are likely to reduce further. The way in which the clause and particularly the schedule are constructed is most unfortunate. The impact assessment has not given the Committee the full information it needs to assess the advantages and disadvantages of the clause and schedule. I urge him to look again at the issue.
I rise to emphasise one or two key points that have already been touched upon. It is worth noting that the Commons Act 2006, including section 15, which put in place the town and village green designation, had all-party support in the House of Commons. We need to be careful about changing it in a way that does not maintain that all-party support. It is clear in the debate that there is all-party support for tackling vexatious applications. There have been comments about the number of vexatious applications, but we have not been presented with any analysis.
Town and village green designation is a tough process. People may have a genuine desire for town and village greens, but an application can fail due to one aspect, which is right and proper. Failure to achieve designation does not mean that a claim is vexatious or spurious. A genuine attempt at designation may not meet the criteria when properly applied. We have had a lot of assertion, but little analysis. I fear that what is being put in place, as presented in the evidence of many groups used to working with community groups, is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The measure does not need to be as substantial as this, and we will rue its impact at our leisure. It risks impacting not only on us, but on future generations.
I wish to return to local authorities that own land they wish to develop, which puts them in a difficult position, as it always has. They must ensure that communities are properly consulted and concerns examined. In my constituency, the local authority has been a bit free and easy in how it has treated Ashby pond—an area of natural beauty used for many generations. Town and village green designation provides an additional process that gives a level of protection and challenge to local authorities in such circumstances. I recognise what has been said about the development of the local and neighbourhood planning framework. That should give us the protections we seek when it is mature, but it is not mature at this point. Moving forward too briskly on this may create problems that we regret.
I rise to make a brief contribution, given your strictures on interventions, Mr Howarth.
In evidence, we heard about a number of cases in which people had sought to use the process we are debating to frustrate development the wider community wanted. I therefore applaud the clause for doing away with restrictions that allow people vexatiously to frustrate development.
While I strongly support the clause, however, I have one concern about the table, which I hope the Minister can deal with. As the hon. Member for Scunthorpe said, the local authority may be the landowner and may also wish to develop the land. Under the provisions in the table, a draft development plan could be published, acting as a trigger event that would frustrate any individual who wanted to register the land as a town or village green.
I can give two examples to highlight my concern: one is from my constituency, and the other is from close to where I live. In my constituency, the local authority has chosen to turn a green space that is widely used by the community into a leisure centre. The centre will be run by a private operator, which will restrict access to the green space for absolutely everyone, charging them for the privilege of using it and frustrating a number of local groups. Under the Bill, no one would be able to register that green space as a town or village green, although people are currently going through that process. My concern is that if the local authority decides in future to publish a potential development plan for a number of years ahead, that will frustrate local people’s ability to gain access to such local areas.
The other example, which I know only too well, is Northwick Park golf course, where a right of way had existed for many years. Local campaigners used the process we are discussing in an attempt to frustrate the setting up of the golf course. Fortunately, through a negotiated arrangement, the right of way was moved. As a result, there was still a right of way, and people still had access to the green space—it was just not the exact green space they originally had. The process dealt with in the clause therefore frustrated that development at the point when it was being decided whether to register it, temporarily preventing a wholesale development that was to the broader benefit of the whole community.
My concern is that when a local authority owns and controls land on behalf of local people, and someone in one of its departments decides to develop the land for leisure, housing or other purposes, that can trigger an event that would prevent local people from being able to register the land for the use they may have made of it for many years.
I therefore ask that we examine what should happen in such cases to ensure that local people have the opportunity to register land for the uses they have made of it over many years, so that they are not suddenly told in a bureaucratic way, “We’re very sorry, but you can no longer register this land for your use because the local authority has decided that it is going ahead with some form of development.” I trust that the Minister can answer that point in his speech.
May I turn first to the principles behind the clause, and then try to answer some of the specific questions that have been put to me?
The first suggestion is that the Government have somehow cooked up the clause in a hurry to accelerate growth—that is was put together in a rush over the summer. Let me make it clear that the provisions in this and the previous clause are the culmination of several years of consideration and consultation, both under this Government and our predecessor. They were informed by research commissioned by the previous Government, the findings of the Penfold review—also initiated by the previous Government—and by responses to an extensive consultation last year on the options for reforming the registration process. All of that has highlighted the confusion, frustration and unnecessary costs that arise when a decision to develop land through the planning system is second-guessed by an application to register land as a green.
Planning decisions about whether land should be developed or left open are made only after very careful consideration of relevant factors and of the wider public interest. Decisions to develop land through the democratically accountable planning system should not be undermined, and proposed new section 15C of the Commons Act 2006 will ensure that the planning process can take its course without applications for new greens cutting across it. That will remove the uncertainty and delays that are difficult for those in the community who are affected, and it will reduce the financial burden on local authorities in considering applications.
As we have already established, the provisions will prevent new applications to register land as a green where planning permission has already been granted or where a planning application has been publicised and the decision is still to be made. Similar provisions will apply in relation to applications for consent for nationally significant infrastructure projects under the regime provided by the Planning Act 2008. Applications to register land as a green will also be prevented where the land has been identified for potential development in a local plan or a neighbourhood plan, including draft plans that have been formally published for consultation by the local planning authority. I think that the Committee is now clear about the effect of the clause, even if some its members still have reservations about how the clause will operate.
The hon. Member for City of Durham asked me about wider considerations that were not included in the impact assessment on the Bill. They were addressed in the fuller impact assessment of village green reform. If she turns to annex C of that document—page 33—she will see a full analysis of the wider benefits under the categories of health, which was one of her specific concerns, and biodiversity, air quality and non-use benefits.
The hon. Lady suggested that neighbourhood planning is not properly resourced. I have to tell her that real progress is being made. We have some 50 neighbourhood plans that will be in train or being examined by next spring. The whole point of the clause is that that process should not be undermined or cut across by applications for green.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East returned to the issue of land owned by local authorities. A local authority is treated exactly the same as any other landowner. In the cases to which he referred, there would have been full public consultation, even though, as I accept, in the latter case that was some years earlier. I do not want to comment on the two specific cases, because it would not be right to do so, but I am happy to put in writing a reassurance about how the clause will deal with land owned by a local authority.
Finally, with the best of intentions, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe came to the crux of the matter, because he sees applications to register town and village greens as an additional protection—those were his words—against local authorities. I suggest that that rather gives the game away. He does not trust the local democratic decision-making process, in which there is consultation and the various interests of the environment and development—for example, whether a new school should be provided—are balanced by democratically elected councillors going through the full consultation process. That is the issue that the Committee now has to determine, when coming to a decision on the clause.