New Developments on Green-belt Land — [Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall on 12th October 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

[Relevant document: e-petition 600577, Ban developments on Green belt and Greenfield sites across the country.]

Photo of Taiwo Owatemi Taiwo Owatemi Labour, Coventry North West 9:30 am, 12th October 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the impact of new developments on greenbelt land.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I thank every single Member and my hon. Friends who have chosen to participate in this important debate and represent their constituents’ concern. The impact of new development being imposed on our treasured green belt is a burning issue for many of my constituents in Coventry North West, so I welcome this opportunity to highlight their frustrations.

From Eastern Green to Allesley, Keresley and Holbrooks, communities in my constituency have seen vital green spaces lost to new housing developments in recent years, with more of our local green belt threatened with the same fate if we do not change course. Campaigners in Coventry want to see a bold change of direction concerning planning and development policy, so I hope that securing this debate will force the Government to listen and take note.

I want to start by examining the process by which houses are built and how it favours big developers, who are not accountable to local communities and often ignore local housing needs. We all know that Britain has long faced a housing crisis. Waiting lists for social housing continue to grow to record lengths, while home ownership in the UK has fallen to 65%, with many struggling to get on to the housing ladder. It is a plight that stretches across all our constituencies, and it has been left unaddressed by the Conservative Government for over a decade. The Government have also failed to introduce any meaningful reforms to planning and development since I became the MP for Coventry North West in 2019. Serious change in this area is long overdue. The lack of action means that we are left living in a planning and development free-for-all, and the impact on our local communities is clear for all to see.

As things stand, it is private developers who hold the balance of power. They decide which type of houses are built, where they are built and the prices that they are sold for. They are not accountable to anyone but themselves—not to communities, not to local people, not to local government and not even to national Government. For years, my constituents have told me that the current planning rules are not fit for purpose. They serve developers’ greed and do nothing to allow local voices and those most impacted by new development to be heard.

We need to be able to hold developers to account. Developers will claim that they are helping to fix Britain’s housing crisis by building new developments, but the truth is that until they start listening to the needs of local people, they will only make the problem worse. Indeed, the new Prime Minister’s suggestion that we should simply hand more power to property developers risks permanently changing our communities. The voices of residents and their elected representatives will be virtually wiped out of the planning process if the Prime Minister ignores their objections and presses ahead with these changes.

But is it any wonder that this Conservative Prime Minister wants to hand even greater power to wealthy developers when property developers were responsible for 20% of all donations—more than £60 million—to the Conservative party between 2010 and 2020? While Conservatives in Coventry conveniently pretend to care about saving our green belt from development, the same political party is lining its pockets with donations from the very housing developers that they claim to be standing up to. This is unacceptable. We need our Government to stand up for local people, not those seeking to maximise their profits at the expense of our precious green belt.

Our planning system is completely broken, and the answer cannot be to hand more power to a few greedy developers. Instead, a complete overhaul is required, with local communities and local government in the driving seat. That way, they can set the direction of travel concerning new development in their neighbourhoods, delivering affordable homes for families exactly where we need them.

A survey of my constituents that I carried out recently unsurprisingly revealed that a clear majority wanted more affordable homes to be built in Coventry, but that they wanted those homes to be built on the existing brownfield sites across the city instead of on our treasured green spaces. The survey also showed that residents were overwhelmingly against any proposed changes to planning laws that would make building on green belt easier. A majority of residents were also worried that the rule changes would mean local people had even less say when a new development was proposed where they live. I call on the Government to take action to ensure developers are accountable to local people, communities and elected representatives.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate, and I apologise for the fact that I will not be here later on, because I have another thing to go to. Does she agree that in urban and rural development, as with much in life, there is a delicate balance to be found? Current planning does not find the common-sense balance, and community planning takes a back seat to the interpretation of the law. We need to ensure that future planning is flexible enough to protect both urban and rural development, and that communities have a full say in what happens. I know the rules are different in Northern Ireland, but in many cases back home I find that local people do not have the input that they should.

Photo of Taiwo Owatemi Taiwo Owatemi Labour, Coventry North West

The hon. Member makes an important point, and he is absolutely right that local people need to be able to have a local say on developments in their area. Developers should not be dictating to people in Coventry North West, who have often lived in the area for generations, what is in their best interests.

I will take a moment to look at the statistics, which are often used to estimate how many homes should be built and where. With the 38 new investment zones that have recently been announced, Whitehall is taking more and more control over the planning processes in our towns and cities. This approach is often predicted using census projections, but in Coventry the predictions have turned out to be way off. Our population has not grown anywhere near as quickly as was anticipated. The Office for National Statistics estimated Coventry’s population would be over 379,000, but recently released census results show that our city’s population actually stands at just 345,000—more than 30,000 less than predicted. This means that green-belt land may be torn up unnecessarily for houses that are not actually needed. It is now clear that the Government projections were plain wrong, and that top-down imposed house building targets are widely inaccurate.

The outcome in Coventry is that some of the most beautiful green spaces in my constituency have been needlessly taken away from green belt and allocated for house building instead. The figures do not stack up. For the short term, I would like to see a halt to building on any green-belt land around Coventry while accurate figures are calculated. I have repeatedly joined campaigners across Coventry in calling for these figures to be reviewed, but our pleas are falling on deaf ears. The Government have refused to take any action to remedy the situation, so the decimation of our green belt is poised to continue. Plans are still ongoing to build new developments that few people want. An overwhelming 92% of residents who took part in my survey thought that those elected to represent them on the city council must have a proper say on new development proposals in our city, but local government has little power over the matter.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Labour, Weaver Vale

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for her excellent speech. In my constituency, Weaver Vale, more than 2,000 units are being built on green-belt land as we speak. This former green-belt land was purchased by the Government agency named Homes England, yet the national planning framework talks about building on green belt in exceptional circumstances. There are huge contradictions, and the direction of travel seems to be towards further liberalisation. I agree with my hon. Friend that there need to be strengthened protections in the green belt.

Photo of Taiwo Owatemi Taiwo Owatemi Labour, Coventry North West

I thank my hon. Friend for his important point. He is right that we must continue to strengthen the protection of our green belt.

An overwhelming 92% of residents who took part in my survey thought that those elected to represent us on the city council must have a proper say on new development proposals in our community, but local government has little power in the matter. Instead, Whitehall is able to impose house building targets based on its faulty figures. I want to see a real shift in power away from Whitehall and towards local government. That would mean that local elected representatives, accountable to their residents who live and breathe their community, had the final say on new development. That way, we could abandon the inaccurate house building targets imposed by Whitehall and get on with meeting local housing needs.

In contrast to the Conservative Government, who have consistently sided with wealthy developers over local people, the Labour party has set out a different vision for planning and development policy. Labour would hand power to local communities to build the affordable housing they need and give councils the ability to build much-needed social housing—the houses we need where local people want them to be built. When new developments were built, Labour would give priority to first-time buyers and prevent new homes from being bought up by foreign investors before local people got a look in. That would put the dream of home ownership within reach of many people who cannot get on the housing ladder and reverse the decline in home ownership under this Government.

While the Conservatives are in the pocket of their property developer donors, a Labour Government would be on the side of local communities and would deliver the housing that Britain needs. Far too often, the houses being built are in opposition to what people need and want. Across the communities in Holbrooks, Allesley, Keresley and Eastern Green in my constituency, many have real and heartfelt anxieties about the impact of large-scale new development and its devastating impact on green-belt land. That is because the wrong type of housing is being built, and those houses are being built in the wrong part of the city. Eventually, they are going to be sold at an unaffordable price. From start to finish, this is a mess caused by a broken system. Those communities are already changing because of overdevelopment, and there is a great deal of frustration owing to the fact that communities can have large-scale development imposed on them without receiving the investment that is needed.

Too frequently, when homes are built in the wrong part of our city, the additional local services and new infrastructure required to support them are not put in place. Greedy developers must not be allowed to profit from building hundreds of expensive new houses against the will of local people and then walk away, doing nothing to provide much-needed services and infrastructure. New developments in Coventry North West are often built far from the nearest GP surgery, schools and shops, and without a proper broadband connection. Those developments often have neither public transport nor adequate roads. Everyone is fed up with massive developments being allowed to go ahead without proper thought and consideration being given to the infrastructure needed and the availability of public services. It is just not good enough.

It is morally bankrupt to build homes without also ensuring access to vital services, and it makes no practical sense either, as extra pressure is piled on already overstretched services. Developers will always want to turn a profit, but they must be made to play their part in delivering the services and infrastructure required to support the new homes that they build. In my constituency, too many homes are being built on green-belt land, and they are simply too expensive for local people to afford. I have repeatedly met with big developers to insist that they build affordable, family-sized homes for first-time buyers in the right part of our city, but those calls have repeatedly been dismissed. We must build homes that are affordable for families living in Coventry. Otherwise, what is the point of those homes?

Overpriced homes and out-of-reach mortgages are not what my constituents need. In Coventry, there are brownfield sites and similar land suited to redevelopment. That must be used first, before developers start destroying our precious green belt. Rather than building on the green belt at the behest of developers, I want houses to be built on brownfield sites, on disused land and in empty buildings, because that is what local people have asked for.

Lastly, I will highlight some of the specific local concerns that affect my constituency. Too often, developers earmark popular open spaces in our towns and cities for new homes, depriving communities of much-needed open spaces. That is certainly a problem in my constituency. Take Coundon Wedge, a beautiful spot that is enjoyed by people from across our city. Developers have been eyeing up Coundon Wedge for some time and, as homes are proposed on nearby Browns Lane, many people are understandably anxious that the Wedge will be next.

The local council has made it clear for decades that it does not want to build homes on Coundon Wedge. However, many people fear that because inaccurate house building targets are being imposed on Coventry by Whitehall, the hands of the local council may soon be forced. That is totally unacceptable. Coundon Wedge must not be put up for sale, and as the local MP I will oppose any future plans for new development on this vital green space.

Although local Conservatives in Coventry have been cynically campaigning to save Coundon Wedge for their own political gain, their party has been in power for the last 12 years and has failed to deliver long-overdue reforms to our planning law. The Conservatives are overseeing the very same planning and development free-for-all that threatens the future of the Wedge. Indeed, when the Conservatives last led Coventry City Council, they proposed thousands of new homes on green-belt land in Keresley, which is also in my constituency. People in my constituency will not be so easily fooled, and the hypocrisy will not go unnoticed.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

I support many of the arguments that the hon. Lady has made, and I share her concern about greenfield development. However, one issue in my constituency is the absence of a local plan that sits with local government. I wonder whether that is the case in her patch, too, because I understand that in her area, as in mine, there is a very long waiting list for social housing.

Photo of Taiwo Owatemi Taiwo Owatemi Labour, Coventry North West

I thank the hon. Member for making that important point. Yes, in my constituency there is a long waiting list for housing, and local government needs more control over that.

I have covered a number of issues today, including how house building favours large developers, how the statistics that are used are often inaccurate and lead to undesirable outcomes, and how the houses that are built are often not what local people want or need. I am sure that many Members here have similar issues in their own constituencies and that, like me, they have heard from concerned constituents who oppose the current development free-for-all. It is seriously concerning that the new Prime Minister appears determined to make the situation even messier. We have seen reports in the media just this week of Government Ministers scheming to hand over yet more power to developers. At the same time, they want to scrap rules that ensure new homes are affordable, and they want to remove wildlife protections. This Government want to create a developer wild west, which is completely out of order.

I believe that the only way to deliver for our constituents is to listen to their concerns. It is overwhelmingly clear to me that they want good-quality, family-sized homes that are for sale at an affordable price, and they want those homes to be built on empty brownfield sites, alongside good-quality infrastructure and local services. They do not want homes to be needlessly built on green-belt land—they do not want that to be imposed on them by an out-of-touch Whitehall and developers looking to make a quick buck.

With reform in development and planning rules high up on the Government’s agenda, I call on the Government to do the right thing: listen to my constituents and take action as soon as possible.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Colleagues, there are nine of you trying to catch my eye, and we have about 50 minutes in which you can all make your excellent speeches. If you can contain yourselves to five minutes each voluntarily, that will be most helpful.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson Conservative, South Staffordshire 9:49 am, 12th October 2022

I congratulate Taiwo Owatemi on securing the debate and leading it so well.

Some 91.4% of my South Staffordshire constituency sits within green-belt land, and the largest number of signatories to the petition—616 in all—are South Staffordshire residents. That indicates the real passion, concern and desire to protect the green belt in South Staffordshire.

There are a number of things that the Government can do to make a material difference to protect the environment, nature and conservation—all things that every one of us in this House values and wants to protect so very much. At the moment there is a real lack of clarity in the Government’s approach to the duty to co-operate. That puts enormous pressure on many local authorities, especially ones that neighbour large urban, metropolitan areas.

The Government have said that there will be changes to the duty to co-operate, but they have not come up with the clarification that authorities need to be in the best position to proceed with local plans and understand what the new rules will be. I hope that the new Minister will take the opportunity to set out clearly what the new rules on the duty to co-operate, or its abolition, will mean. If he is not able to do so, will he give a date for when that clarification will come about?

It would also be useful if the Minister could speak to local authorities that are in the process of developing their local plans. In South Staffordshire, we are in a terrible situation. We are having thousands of houses imposed on the green belt by Black Country authorities and by Birmingham as a result of the Government’s saying that they are going to abolish the duty to co-operate but not clarifying what they will replace it with. This is urgent. Will the Minister say whether authorities that are proceeding with local plans are able to pause those plans and make sure that they have protections so that they are not vulnerable to unscrupulous developers coming forward with plans? Authorities cannot properly proceed until the Government clarify what the replacement for the duty to co-operate will look like. I hope the Minister will be able to do that today.

The simple reality is that the duty to co-operate system is causing many local authorities to build the wrong types of houses in the wrong areas. It is a blight on our countryside and our green belt. The Minister needs to act on the Government policy to abolish the duty to co-operate and stop imposing thousands of housing units on the green belt when it would be more appropriate to use brownfield sites and inner cities in order to regenerate.

The hon. Member for Coventry North West made a very important point about how the housing numbers that local authorities are required to use are simply wrong. It is widely known in the industry, by planning authorities and in communities that they are wrong. The 2014 figures, which are currently the basis for plans, are leading to the incorrect numbers being used by local authorities, which puts an even greater burden on councils to provide numbers that are not required. That needs to be urgently addressed. The figures are eight years out of date.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

Does my right hon. Friend agree that coupled with that is the uncertainty regarding the five-year land supply? Does that not also need urgent clarification?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson Conservative, South Staffordshire

My hon. Friend is spot on. I know that our hon. Friend the Housing Minister has great ambition and drive. He has many predecessors whom he can far outshine by showing great leadership. He can be known as the finest Housing Minister out of many by giving clarity on these issues. Making reforms to the housing market and to housing supply would not only benefit people who want to buy a home, but protect the green belt, our countryside and nature. I urge him to seize the day and do that.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central 9:54 am, 12th October 2022

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend Taiwo Owatemi on securing the debate.

Before asking what is being built on the green belt, we have to ask what is being built on brownfield sites. In York’s case, it is assets for investors rather than homes for families and communities. CPRE estimates that more than 26,000 hectares of UK brownfield land are available for development—enough to build a million homes. Between 2006 and 2016, the proportion of brownfield land used for residential development dropped by 38%, whereas building on greenfield land increased by a staggering 148%. Public money is invested in the remediation of brownfield sites, while the owners land bank before declaring the unviability of any affordable or social housing. It is a complete scam.

Until the Government turn planning on its head, landowners and developers will continue to game the system, using every means possible to derive huge profits from urban brownfield sites by delivering high-priced investor units that do not meet local need and exceed local affordability. In York, again and again, this has meant that scarce land is used for the development of properties for the investment market, student accommodation or hotel rooms, leaving local housing need unmet and pressure to develop the green belt—a developer’s paradise.

Just last week, the Lib Dem-Green York Council agreed yet another multipurpose development, including an 88-room aparthotel and 153 new apartments, more than half of which will be bedsits and will immediately flip into holiday lets. There will not be a single affordable unit. That mirrors a long succession of planning decisions in our ancient city. In York Central, Government agencies are planning to use 45 hectares of brownfield land for the delivery of 2,500 units that are unsuitable and unaffordable for local families, thereby wasting the land and pushing vital economic and housing development to the green belt.

Every hectare of brownfield land that is squandered for extractive profits puts another hectare of green belt under threat. On each of these new developments, large swathes of properties move to the second home market immediately after completion. Some are never occupied, and many turn into Airbnbs. The revenue pays the mortgage while the asset gains value, pushing up house prices even more and making them completely inaccessible to local people.

Meanwhile, in York, thousands of families are waiting for a home that they simply want to call their own. We cannot pretend that there is any gain for local people; demand is outstripping supply, driving up property value but never delivering the homes people need. They are being driven out of their city to some greenfield site miles away. That impacts the local economy too, with people on the lowest incomes having to make the longest commutes, involving costs they cannot afford.

Greenfield demand is a consequence of failed planning, and I fear that greater liberalisation is on its way. The Government are going in completely the wrong direction. Unbelievably, Dartmoor, the North York Moors and the New Forest are set to fall within the boundaries of freeports and urban centres’ investment zones, free from planning restrictions. The developers’ charter is back, but without a people’s charter for public land for public good, we will never meet housing need. The economic crisis has made things worse.

The only politician to make real inroads in this area was Nye Bevan. In a famous speech, he said that only municipal control could ever develop the housing needed. He was right, and he delivered it. York is plagued with applications for green-belt development, but brownfield land must not be squandered at the expense of our green belt. We cannot stand by when people have nowhere to live. This is not an urban versus rural debate, but one between those who extract profit and those wanting to protect communities. Working together to ensure that brownfield sites are developed for local need will protect the green belt. The Government need to decide which side they are on.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire 9:59 am, 12th October 2022

It is a pleasure, as always, to see you in the Chair, Sir Gary. I warmly congratulate Taiwo Owatemi on securing this important debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss this issue.

My constituents in East Hampshire were among the top 10 by number of signatories to e-petition 600577, which is explicitly linked to this debate and is about green-belt and greenfield sites. It is important to make a distinction between the two: “green belt” is a particular land designation and a particularly important natural asset, but “greenfield” is also an important part of nature and amenity, whether for resident constituents or people coming from further afield. People often use the two terms interchangeably.

Realistically, I do not think we can say that we will never build on a greenfield site. Whatever type of dwelling we or our constituents live in, it is built on what was once a greenfield site. The reality is that the population has been growing for many years, for many reasons, including the positive fact that people are living longer, as well the tendency towards smaller households. However, we can make sure that we prioritise brownfield sites, and we need to give meaning to that. It is an easy phrase to throw out, but it has to mean something and to be enabled, through initiatives such as the facilitation of high-quality, amenity-enhancing estate redensification, town centre concentrations and city centre revitalisations.

The situation in my constituency is almost unique because the constituency is bisected by the boundary of a national park. Some 57% of the area is in the national park and 43% is outside it. Unusually, there is a sizeable town—Petersfield—inside the national park. Although the housing numbers were assessed on the basis of the whole district, effectively almost all of them have to go in the minority area, outside the boundary of the national park. That potentially puts a great deal of pressure on places just outside the boundary, such as Alton, Four Marks, Whitehill, Bordon and parts of the village of Liphook. In practical terms, East Hampshire District Council’s emerging local plan sets out that 632 homes a year will have to be built, but 532 of them—some 84%—will have to be delivered in the 43% of the area that is outside the national park.

The system nominally allows local authorities to use what is called “an alternative approach” to assess housing need where the strategic policy-making authority’s boundaries do not align with the local authority. However, there is a big risk in taking that route; authorities know that if they pursue it, they can expect challenge when the local plan is examined by the Planning Inspectorate. The consequences of the plan failing at that stage, in terms of speculative development and lack of infrastructure delivery, are potentially so great that local authorities are naturally reluctant to consider an alternative approach. We found it difficult to find examples of local authorities in a similar situation that have adopted such an approach.

I thank the Minister’s officials at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for meeting officials from my local council earlier this year to discuss these difficult circumstances, but the situation essentially remains the same. The “Planning for the Future” White Paper of 2020 contains proposals to look at land constraints right at the start of the process of assessment of housing need, but we are not clear about the status of those proposals. Is the Minister able to give us any further detail about that? That would be welcome.

In common with my right hon. Friend Sir Gavin Williamson, I am also keen to urgently understand the meaning of the “more flexible alignment test” that is intended to replace the duty to co-operate. Finally, in a situation such as mine, where the boundary of a national park cuts across the constituency and the local authority area, it would be preferable if numbers could be assessed separately inside and outside the park.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Labour, City of Chester 10:04 am, 12th October 2022

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend Taiwo Owatemi on securing the debate and leading it so well.

I grew up in a little village in Cheshire, in between Chester and Warrington, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mike Amesbury—probably only a political nerd would describe the area they grew up by its constituency. We were always sensitive about the need to maintain the green belt. There was pressure from new towns in Warrington and Runcorn, which were providing overspill, but the green belt is there for a reason: to prevent both urban sprawl and urban decay. Hon. Members have already talked about the fact that if development must take place in city and town centres, it revitalises them.

The green belt must be there for everybody. There cannot be an assumption that it is only there for the people who are lucky enough to live in it. The countryside should be enjoyed by everybody. We talk about rural poverty and rural deprivation. It is true that that happens, but getting people into rural areas would make a difference to that. The green belt should be there for all to enjoy, and it needs to be defended.

Despite the name of my constituency—City of Chester—almost three quarters of it is green belt. In the last few years, I am afraid that we have seen developments in green-belt areas, which were opposed by the local community and the council but overturned on appeal and granted by the Government.

I am currently battling development of a greenfield site on Sealand Road. The clue is in the name: it is in part next to the River Dee, which has flooded in the past. These are floodplain areas, and there are fields there used as sinks during floods, but they have been built on. The local council opposed that development, but speculators bought the site, took it to appeal and won. There are existing houses on Sealand Road. The new houses have had to be built raised up behind them, because of the threat of flooding. I can say now that when the first floods happen in that area—because they will; as I say, the name is something of a giveaway—all that water will go to the existing houses. The Government must understand that they cannot keep granting green-belt developments in entirely unsuitable locations over the heads of local authorities.

There is a difference between planning regulations in England and Wales: when new residential developments are built in England, particularly on the green belt, there is no requirement for the developers to deal with surface water, whereas in Wales there is such a requirement. That contributes to drains being inundated when there is heavy rain. The drains cannot cope, so water is diverted into the sewers; then the sewers cannot cope, so water is diverted into open water such as rivers. There has to be a change in planning rules in England to make sure that developers have a responsibility to build suitable drainage. Otherwise, the water falls on stone, concrete and tarmac; it does not go anywhere, and it inundates the sewerage system.

My hon. Friends have already said that the wrong type of housing is being built for the wrong reasons. The current housing policy in England suits the needs of the developers, not the housing needs of communities. The developers get the most profit from building big, executive-style country houses in nice locations. I do not blame the developers—they are there to make a profit, and good luck to them—but that should not dictate our housing policy. Our housing policy should meet the needs of the community, and that means building lots of different types of housing, and in cities. There should be a presumption against spreading out and an aim to maintain vibrancy in city centres.

Finally, there is still reluctance among local councils, which are under severe financial pressure, to stand against development proposals even if there is strong community opposition, because they know that they would have to pay the costs of an appeal. That is unfair and wrong, and it skews local councils’ planning judgments and their ability to fight against green-belt or any other developments, because they have to be very cautious about costs. I would be grateful if we could look at that again.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne 10:09 am, 12th October 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate Taiwo Owatemi on securing this debate and clearly setting out many of the challenges we face in our constituencies. I want to focus on one particular planning application in Willingdon, which sits in the constituency of Eastbourne, because it reflects all that is wrong and all that needs reforming in the planning system, and it also reflects my constituents’ many concerns.

On the need for reform, I echo the comments that have been made about the five-year land supply. The planning authority currently has 8,000 approvals that have not been built, and yet it is held hostage by speculative development because there is no local plan. That powerfully demonstrates the very weak voice of local determination, because this has happened despite the wishes and desires of the local community.

The planning application also reflects some of the faultlines in the calculation of housing need. This greenfield site, so cherished by the local community, represents probably the final green space between Eastbourne and Willingdon. The application essentially changes forever the character of the local area, which was once a village but is increasingly part of an urban fringe, and takes important agricultural land out of use. It is well recognised that there are concerns about flooding in the area, and I am absolutely mystified that Southern Water has given its support and endorsement to the planning application, based on the use of storm overflows. That cannot be right.

Congestion and road safety are also in the mix, but I want to focus on due process, and I know that my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend Maria Caulfield, shares my concerns. On 6 September, I spoke at the appeal inquiry and outlined the fundamental and fatal flaws in our local transport models, which were exposed in a 2019 report by the highly regarded AECOM. I argued that if the models are unfit for purpose, the findings based on them cannot be considered in any way safe or sound. Highways are clearly central to the decision to grant or reject this deeply unpopular proposed development, and are the reason it was previously thrown out.

Of most serious concern is the obvious chilling effect that the threat of costs has had on local government bodies and the democratic process. Wealden District Council twice refused the application. Days before the appeal, it withdrew its objection, not because its concerns and principled objections had been answered and satisfied, or because the local residents it had been representing had been otherwise persuaded, but because it had been warned by its legal representative that continuing courted the risk of substantial cost. Willingdon and Jevington parish council, which had likewise stood against the application at every turn and contributed strongly at every stage of the process, was similarly forced to withdraw. That is a damning indictment of the system and a clear democratic faultline.

The decision has now been made, and the appeal has been successful. I urge the Minister to meet me and my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, to look at the application and call it in. I also ask him to look at levelling up as it relates to VAT. New build and greenfield attracts a 0% VAT rating, but conversion, restoration and renovation of my Victorian town centre carries a 20% VAT penalty. It is clear where the balance of interests lies. Finally, I ask him to consider the brownfield-first strategy mentioned today.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Labour, Wirral West 10:15 am, 12th October 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend Taiwo Owatemi on securing the debate and on her excellent opening speech. In July I attended a public meeting in Greasby community centre organised by local people who are determined to protect the green belt. The hall was absolutely packed, and it is abundantly clear that my constituents feel passionately about protecting the green belt, and I support them.

The green belt is incredibly important for our health and wellbeing, to supporting wildlife habits and to allowing nature to flourish. It has a vital part to play in our response to the climate and ecological emergency, so we need housing to be built on brownfield sites. In recent months there has been a spate of applications from developers to build homes on green-belt land in Wirral. In Wirral West, Leverhulme Estate currently has plans to build up to 260 homes in Pensby, 290 in Irby and 240 in Greasby.

There was great concern among Irby residents at the news that another developer—Richborough Estates—has come forward with a proposal that could see up to 190 news homes built across 31 acres of green-belt land on either side of Mill Hill Road. On their website, the developers say the site

“will be promoted for Green Belt release through the emerging Wirral Local Plan”,

so it seems they will be lobbying for these green fields to be released for development. I have voiced my concerns, and according to the local press the company has said it will not proceed with these plans until the site is successfully removed from the green belt and has status within the Wirral local plan. That is hardly reassuring, and the developers’ intentions remain clearly stated on their website. Local people are angry and upset, and I support them as we stand together in our opposition to Leverhulme Estate and Richborough Estates’ proposals to build houses on precious green belt.

CPRE, the countryside charity, publishes regular reports on the state of the green belt, which, among other things, track the number of submitted and approved applications for development on green-belt land. According to the most recent report, in February 2021, 793 applications were submitted on green-belt land between 2009-10 and 2019-20, of which 337—just over 42%—were approved. That resulted in the building of more than 50,000 housing units, so clearly there is not the level of protection for the green belt that there needs to be. The situation looks likely to become worse because the Government’s Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill could further weaken protections. The Bill would introduce national development management policies, which would have primacy over local development plans, meaning that those plans could be easily and rapidly rendered out of date by changes to national policies.

I would like to look at the implications for Wirral West. Wirral’s draft local plan states:

“Sufficient brownfield land and opportunities exist within the urban areas of the borough to ensure that objectively assessed housing and employment needs can be met over the plan period… The council has therefore concluded that the exceptional circumstances to justify alterations to the green belt boundaries do not exist in Wirral.”

However, an NDMP could overrule that. I fear we are facing a power grab by central Government, so it would be helpful if the Minister could rule out a situation where, on the one hand, a council says that any new housing in its area will be built on brownfield sites and the green belt will be protected but, on the other hand, the Government set a national development management policy that overrules the local council position.

It is a matter of real concern that the current Secretary of State has previously called for the release of green-belt land for new homes and has described the green belt as

“an arbitrary and increasingly damaging holdover from seventy years ago”.

He has said:

“The green belt is not part of the problem, but is the problem. As currently constituted, it has become the central obstacle to enabling the building of the volume of houses we need, where we need them.”

It is also concerning that, back in 2019, the now Prime Minister said that the Conservatives should build 1 million homes on the green belt. No wonder people in Wirral West are concerned by the threat the Conservatives pose to the green belt. I urge the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State to think again, and I ask the Minister to speak to them directly about this matter because it is clear that people value the green belt and want it protected.

We need more homes in Wirral and right across the country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West so eloquently described. Such homes need to be affordable for first-time buyers and private renters, they need to be in locations where infrastructure such as roads, public transport and services is already in place, and they need to have high levels of energy efficiency and to be built on brownfield sites. It is a matter of real concern that, just as it has damaged the economy, the Government’s policy now threatens to further damage the environment too. The Government really must come forward with strong protections for the green belt as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby 10:20 am, 12th October 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate Taiwo Owatemi on bringing forward this debate on issues affecting Coventry, which have an impact on my constituents—particularly those who live in the village of Bulkington, within the ambit of Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council. My constituents there are having to accept a 27.3% increase in the size of their village, with the number of houses moving from 2,794 to 3,558.

That is a massive increase and proportionally much more than other areas are being asked to take, but there is an opportunity to hold back on consent for 196 homes on one site if the Secretary of State grants a moratorium on strategic site approvals in the way the hon. Lady has asked for. I have written two letters to Secretaries of State asking for that to be done. Regrettably, the response was not positive, but I will make the case for action to the Minister today.

The challenge in Bulkington arises because, in 2015, a memorandum of understanding—a duty to co-operate—between Warwick District Council, Coventry City Council and Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council included provision to promote the release of land that was previously in the green belt. This arose from the need for additional housing in the city of Coventry, which, as the hon. Lady drew attention to, arose from the Office for National Statistics population estimates in 2014.

The challenge for Coventry is that it is an established urban area and there remains a shortage of land in that urban area to meet those housing numbers. As a consequence, Warwick was brought into the mix, along with Nuneaton and Bedworth, to provide additional land as part of their duty to co-operate. I support the contention of my right hon. Friend Sir Gavin Williamson in asking for some clarity on this particular role.

In her remarks, the hon. Member for Coventry North West unfairly criticised Conservative councillors for their approach to these matters. In this case, the issue arose because Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council, which was Labour led at the time, chose to declassify part of its green belt to enable this development to take place. It is important to note that, at the time that that action was taken, it was opposed by the Conservative group on the Council. Significantly, without that declassification, my constituents in Bulkington would not be facing the challenges and problems they currently face.

The hon. Lady referred to the inaccuracy of the numbers, and that was picked up by CPRE, the countryside charity. A review has now taken place and was published in May 2021. It found that the population estimates

“for some cities such as Coventry did seem to be inconsistent with local evidence. This appeared to be the case in some other smaller cities with larger student populations”.

The hon. Lady and I are both proud that Coventry has two universities—Coventry University and the University of Warwick—but that results in some confusion around the number of houses needed.

The hon. Lady pointed out that, in a further development, we now have actual data—the 2021 census figures—and do not need to work off projections. In Coventry’s plan, its population is projected to grow by in excess of 89,000 between 2011 and 2031. The actual growth in the first half of that period, according to the 2021 census, was 28,300. That is substantially less—almost half—of what was projected. That is why the numbers—on which the housing development that the hon. Lady referred to and that is affecting my constituents was based—need to be looked at. If the Coventry population figures had been more accurate, the need for adjacent local authorities to help meet Coventry’s housing need would have been diminished. The development in Bulkington would not need to take place.

So what is our ask? What happens next? Conservative-controlled Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council—the Conservatives have controlled it in recent years—and the people of Bulkington would like the Secretary of State to impose a moratorium on new housing while Coventry City Council and Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council review their local plans. As I mentioned, one site in Bulkington was previously green belt but has now been declassified and has not yet been consented. It is known as HSG7, and it would accommodate 196 homes to the east of the village. Developers currently have a window of opportunity, and we wish to stop that development taking place by asking the Minister to consider the moratorium to which the hon. Member for Coventry North West and I have referred.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions) 10:30 am, 12th October 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I commend and thank my hon. Friend Taiwo Owatemi for her excellent speech and for securing the debate, and I concur with many of the points raised by Members on both sides of the Chamber. In the time available to me, I would like to raise three points: first, the pressure on green land in and around Reading and the neighbouring town of Woodley; secondly, the importance of protecting green spaces and historic streets within towns; and thirdly, the need for the Government to rethink their planning proposals and to have a new planning policy.

First, the pressure on green land in our part of the Thames valley is already significant, as colleagues may know. We have a growing population in our part of southern England, and there is a lot of pressure from speculative developers trying to build on the outskirts of existing towns. Reading does not have a green belt, but it does have a lot of green land. The Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty is a short distance away from the northern boundary of the town. In other directions there are protected sites and interesting landscapes that need to be preserved for local amenity use. As other Members have said, it is so important for local residents to be able to go out and enjoy the countryside, whether that is walking their dog, looking at the countryside or enjoying the green space. That is important for people’s wellbeing and mental health, and everyone should have access to our wonderful countryside.

Sadly, in our area we have a specific problem with speculative developers, and I would like to mention one case that indicates just how appalling this can be. On one site on the edge of Emmer Green, a small village that is now part of Reading, a speculative developer wanted to build a large number of executive homes. That would have started to join up Reading with the neighbouring south Oxfordshire village of Sonning Common, which is completely against the wider thrust of planning policy and the importance of maintaining separate settlements. It was an unsuitable, unsustainable site that would have led to a large amount of extra traffic in both directions, which no residents in the area wanted. I and neighbouring MPs and parish councils campaigned against it, and we were successful. However, I am concerned that the Government’s proposals could unleash a wave of similar applications on the outskirts of existing towns and cities in my constituency and neighbouring parts of southern England.

The strange contrast is that, in Reading, there is a large amount of brownfield land. We actually have enough brownfield in the borough of Reading, let alone the neighbouring suburbs, to provide almost all the housing that is needed until 2036, and that is from Reading Borough Council’s local plan. I urge the Minister to listen to that point, and I hope he will consider rethinking the policy.

Secondly, preserving historic streets is a related issue for many people living in towns and cities; my colleagues from two historic cities—my hon. Friends the Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for City of Chester (Christian Matheson)—mentioned it, and others have hinted at it. Reading is a Victorian, Georgian and arts and crafts town, with a huge amount of really attractive architecture. Sadly, as a university town with many new residents coming in, we already face a lot of pressure, with houses being converted into bedsits, which causes all sorts of issues for neighbouring residents, such as overflowing bins and parking problems. The Government’s proposals would allow what could, in many cases, be quite ugly extensions under permitted development, such as unwanted large rear extensions and loft conversions that are out of keeping. That aspect needs to be rethought, and there should be an emphasis on maintaining the attractive visual appearance of historic areas, whether or not they are conservation areas, for the benefit of all residents. I hope the Minister will consider that point about our wonderful urban environments in many towns and cities, which is related to the issue of preserving the green environment.

I appreciate that there is pressure on time, so I will move on and highlight a potential future policy. As many Members have rightly said, there should be much greater emphasis on redeveloping brownfield. We have some interesting and positive examples of that in our town, in which attractive, red-brick terraced houses or low-rise flats have replaced industrial sites near the town centre, often reusing land that had been derelict for some time and providing a benefit to local residents by removing an ugly site. Also, the environment is protected by the reduction in traffic and the increase in cycling, walking and public transport use. All those are for the greater good, at a time when we are trying to address the serious challenges of climate change and other related environmental challenges. That, surely, should be the way forward.

I hope the Minister will focus on that point and look again at the balance in the planning system between brownfield and greenfield, which seems to be out of kilter. Sadly, the Government proposals, from what I understand of them, would take that much further and allow developers far more leeway to build in areas where local residents clearly do not want development and where there would be unfortunate environmental impacts such as increased car pollution and traffic jams and, indeed, an economic impact owing to transport delays.

I shall conclude, as I appreciate that there is time pressure. I hope that the Minister will think again and listen to the concerns raised by Members on both sides of the Chamber.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Conservative, Lewes

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I congratulate Taiwo Owatemi on securing this important debate, although I shall start by disagreeing with her slightly.

In the Lewes constituency, we had a good system. We had a local plan in place, and nearly every town and parish in the Lewes district had neighbourhood plans, which were voted on by local people and put together by parish councillors. That was delivering our housing numbers in the right place and delivering the right type of accommodation, which enabled older people to stay in their communities by downsizing and young families to begin their life in their community with a starter home.

Our issue is that in 2019 the Lib Dem-Greens took over the district council and let that local plan go out of date, and with it the five-year land supply. With that, all the neighbourhood plans have fallen, and since then we have been inundated with applications from developers, who seized the opportunity to target every greenfield site in the constituency for housing development.

The local planning authority has refused most of those applications on the principle that they are not in the local plan and not in the neighbourhood plan, but those refusals are being overturned almost daily by the planning inspector, as my hon. Friend Caroline Ansell suggested, and there is inaction from our local council, which is squabbling over housing numbers. Meanwhile, not having a local plan in place means that our communities, parishes and town councils, which worked so hard to accommodate the housing numbers they were given, are being left to face the consequences.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Conservative, Lewes

I will not because there is little time left.

That is not fair because the housing being built on those sites is not affordable for local families. It is £400,000 or £500,000 for a starter home, and those are three-bedroom or four-bedroom homes that do not allow our older residents to downsize and stay, or our new young families to start their life in their community. This is not the right housing. We were trying to build communities, not just homes, and the system has failed us.

I have seven key asks of the Minister. Many Members have raised the brownfield first strategy, which was highlighted by the previous Prime Minister and hinted at by our current Prime Minister. We need clarity on that. In Lewes town, we had the Phoenix quarter, which would have delivered thousands of new homes. The Government gave the council £1 million to start that scheme, but not a brick has been laid on the site. Meanwhile, our green fields are being concreted over.

We need to be able to force local councils to get their local plans in place. It cannot be right that we had a plan in place that delivered the housing numbers and the housing that our communities wanted, but that the local plan is not happening because the council is squabbling over housing numbers. All that is now a hostage to fortune. It is the same in the Wealden district of my constituency, which I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne. There has never been a local plan and the district is holding out for the Government either to scrap housing numbers or to deliver a different housing strategy. Meanwhile, every greenfield site is open to challenge from developers.

The standard method was touched on by my right hon. Friend Sir Gavin Williamson. I have received letters from the previous Housing Minister saying that it is not a target, just an indication, but local councils do not feel confident enough to take matters to appeal, because when they do so the planning inspector does not uphold that view. The 2014 housing numbers, which form the standard method, as has been highlighted, are inaccurate and out of date.

We need to take the heat out of the south-east. Members across the Chamber might not agree with me, but we are talking about applications in their thousands, not their hundreds. We have GPs who have closed their lists because they cannot cope, schools that are full and roads that are congested. At the end of the day, we are just not building the housing that helps our local communities, and residents have had enough.

On the land banking issue, Oliver Letwin did a review a couple of years ago and said there was no problem—“Nothing to see here, folks.” Actually, I agree with Rachael Maskell and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne. Wealden district has 8,000 units that have planning permission, but because they are mainly on brownfield sites, it is cheaper, quicker and easier for developers to challenge the council, win at appeal and build on greenfield sites instead.

We absolutely need to support our local planning authorities. In the case of the proposed Mornings Mill development, the council has refused it twice and it has gone to appeal. I am concerned not about the cost but about the principles behind that decision. What is the point of having planning authorities? We might as well give the decision to planning inspectors in the first place. We have tried to build the housing that we are required to build, we did our local plan and our neighbourhood plan, and it cannot be right that decisions by democratically elected councillors are overturned. Developers have the money and legal expertise to be able to win every single case.

Finally, I will address the issue of local plans and five-year land supplies going out of date. Does it really need to take years? They were good plans, and there are only a couple of sites that did not come to fruition. It should take months to revamp that, and we should be able to keep those local plans and the legal protections they provide for our constituencies.

The odds are stacked against our communities at the moment, and we need the Minister’s help. We want to build housing, but it must be the right type of housing for our communities, and we want to build communities and not just homes.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

I thank all of you for your co-operation this morning.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 10:36 am, 12th October 2022

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend Taiwo Owatemi not only on securing a debate that is clearly of great importance to the communities that she represents, but on her willingness to tackle at length a subject that is controversial and has arguably failed to receive the attention it deserves in this place. I also thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part this morning in what has been a lively, interesting and thoughtful session.

In opening the debate, my hon. Friend outlined with her customary forcefulness her concern about the large-scale green belt release that has been authorised on the fringes of her Coventry constituency. The individual cases she mentioned are complex and I do not intend to comment on them in detail, other than to say that, more than anything, they illustrate the difficult position in which individual local authorities are placed in the absence of effective sub-regional frameworks for managing housing growth.

My hon. Friend was also at pains to situate the general issues arising from green-belt development in her city within the context of Britain’s housing crisis, and she was right to do so. After all, the point at issue here is not whether green belts have value and can provide for public recreation, contact with nature and habitat maintenance, which they do. Rather, it is whether green-belt land should be released to meet the significant housing need that now exists across England and, if so, how much and under what circumstances.

When it comes to the green belt, what should be in many ways a relatively dispassionate debate consistently provokes intense emotion and polarisation. That is partly because housing development, by its very nature, will always be a contentious issue, but that fact alone cannot account for the strength of feeling generated by this issue.

I would suggest that at least two other factors underlie the passions provoked by the green belt. The first is that any consideration of the green belt as policy labours under a series of misconceptions. Chief among them is the falsehood, which was mentioned by Damian Hinds, that green belt is always and everywhere green fields, as opposed to the reality, which is that, at least on the edges of most major cities, green belts include abandoned industrial buildings, petrol stations, scrubland, motorways, farmland, golf courses and nature-rich green fields.

The second misconception is that, more often than not, any debate about the future of the green belt is framed as an irreconcilable choice between two flawed options— namely, the complete abolition of green belts or rendering their present boundaries entirely sacrosanct. A more honest and nuanced approach is long overdue—one that recognises that the green belt has served England’s towns and cities very well over many decades, in terms of its original aim of preventing unlimited urban sprawl, and that it must be retained for that purpose but one that also accepts that the green belt’s existence has come at a cost, in terms of constrained housing supply, growing problems with affordability and problematic development displacement, and that there is a strong case for looking again at how the policy should operate in the years ahead.

The Labour party fully supports the prioritisation of brownfield development. We remain committed to preserving the green belt and would resist any attempts to abolish it, as per the long-held wishes of those for whom nothing short of total planning deregulation will suffice. Not only are green belts not to blame for all the country’s housing shortage ills, but their removal would without question trigger a tsunami of land speculation and an increase in low-quality, high-cost and infra- structure-deficient development of the kind that, as we have heard, is already far too commonplace.

However, we are equally opposed to any attempt, along the lines mooted by the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) in the recent Conservative leadership contest, to prevent green-belt land from being released for development under any circumstances. The truth is that there are certain types of land within green-belt boundaries—for example, brownfield land within green belt or poor monocultural farmland next to key transport hubs—that are ideally suited for development. Politicians who argue that every inch of green-belt land should be forever off limits are doing the public a disservice.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson Conservative, South Staffordshire

I wish to respectfully correct the hon. Gentleman. He is referring to already developed land—he talked about petrol stations and industrial areas—but actually that sits outside the green-belt designation. Green-belt designation does not include previously developed industrial land.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman; I think he is wrong on that point. It includes brownfield land and land that has previously been developed. That is part of the problem: there is a misconception that green belt always equals greenfield, but it does not. I will talk about the distinction in a minute, because it is important for how we might go forward.

The debate we should be having is not a rehash of the stale exchanges between those who wish to abolish the green belt entirely and those who wish to render it inviolable. It should instead focus on what the Government need to do to ensure that more of the right bits of the green belt are released for development, that land-value capture is maximised on those sites so that the communities in question can benefit from first-class infrastructure and more affordable housing, and that green-belt land with the highest environmental and amenity value is properly protected, enhanced and made more accessible. The selective release of green belt should increase, rather than decrease, the opportunities for urban communities to benefit from green space and nature.

In our view, any approach to green-belt development must be premised on the involvement of local communities. We believe that more needs to be done to ensure that local authorities routinely review green belt land as part of the local plan-making process and that they have the freedom to take a balanced view of how green belt land within their boundaries is managed, but we also want to see a more meaningful role for the public in determining which areas of local green belt land are permanently protected; which are improved and made more accessible; which might be added to the green belt as part of a swap; and which might be appropriate for new homes.

Perhaps most importantly, any green-belt development must deliver tangible benefits for local communities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West ably outlined, the problem is that in far too many cases today, green-belt land is being transformed into ill-planned neighbourhoods full of overpriced executive homes with the inevitable community backlash that that results in. That point was also made by my hon. Friends the Members for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and for Reading East (Matt Rodda), and by Maria Caulfield.

Ensuring that green-belt development leads to beautiful and well-serviced neighbourhoods with good access to improved green open spaces and homes that are genuinely affordable for local people would require reform, not least to enable local authorities to acquire the land at a reasonable price, but that is entirely feasible if the political will exists. We can debate the precise delivery mechanisms, but Labour believes that the case for more effectively facilitating very limited development on poor-quality land within green belts in areas where it is most needed, in a way that meets local housing need, while at the same time protecting and enhancing high-quality green-belt land for the benefit of the public, is unarguable.

The alternative—here I take issue with Sir Gavin Williamson—is to accept what is already taking place: namely, the progressive loss of all kinds of green-belt land, including greenfield and high-quality green-belt land, via haphazard and speculative fringe development, often of poor quality and via appeal. Doing so also sets aside a potentially valuable means of boosting housing supply, simply because it is too politically sensitive.

In the face of a housing crisis that is our country’s most pernicious iniquity, blighting the lives of millions, the notion that every part of the green belt is sacrosanct cannot be justified. It is high time for a serious debate about the role that a reimagined green belt can play in tackling the crisis. I look forward to hearing from the new Minister, and I once again welcome him to his place. I hope he can clarify not just what the Government intend to do to prevent the ongoing release of high-quality, nature-rich green-belt land of the kind we have heard about, but what the Government’s thinking on the green belt now is more generally, given that in the space of just three years the present Prime Minister has called both for a million homes to be built on green-belt land and for no green-belt development whatsoever to take place.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Before I call the Minister, I remind him to leave two minutes for the mover of the motion to respond at the very end.

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 10:45 am, 12th October 2022

Thank you, Sir Gary. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful to all colleagues for attending today, and I thank and congratulate Taiwo Owatemi on securing this debate. In this my first debate as housing and planning Minister, it is good to get into the important issues that hon. Members have raised. I am sure that they will be brought back regularly throughout my time in post.

A significant number of different issues, both specific and broad, has been raised about the green belt. I will try to answer and address as many of them as I can in the time available. There are two things that mean that I will be unable to answer some questions or to directly address some specific points. First, as hon. Members are aware, due to the quasi-judicial nature of the planning system I am unable to comment on large aspects of individual local plans and specific planning applications, given that they could be called in and dealt with at ministerial level. I apologise to hon. Members for being unable to do so, but I hope they will understand the rationale behind it. Secondly, as a number of hon. Members have indicated, there is a set of questions that are open at this time, and that is because we have a new Government—a new Administration, Prime Minister and Secretary of State. We hope and aim to close and clarify many of those questions as soon as possible, but I hope hon. Members will understand that I am not able to do so in this debate.

With those points in mind, and before turning to the individual comments of hon. Members, I will restate the Government’s clear position that the green belt is a hugely important part of our planning system. For many decades, this much loved and historical feature has protected our landscape. The national planning policy framework makes clear that the green belt has a specific purpose, that it should be released only in exceptional circumstances, as has been clear for a number of years, and that, where possible, local authorities should take into account other ways in which development can take place before looking at green belt, including a requirement to consider brownfield development.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Labour, Wirral West

I refer back to the countryside charity CPRE’s research. It examined a 10-year period of the release of green-belt land and found that about 41% of applications to build on the green belt had gone through. Does the Minister believe that the protections are sufficient and strong? The research suggests that that is not the case.

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

That is a very important point. I will come to it, but it is important to highlight that the amount of green belt in this country has increased in recent years. The overall amount has gone up substantially. That is due in large part to the introduction of a green belt in the north of England, but it is also the case—we should always stand back and consider this—that, in terms of pure hectarage, the amount of green belt has increased. The hon. Lady makes a very important point, and ultimately we have a decision to make on green belt.

Matthew Pennycook on the Opposition Front Bench made the important point that some parts of the green belt do not have the same aesthetic quality as others. Moreover—this has been in the NPPF for a substantial amount of time—there will be exceptions. In certain instances, buildings will need to be built for farms and for forestry, and consideration will have to be given to elements that most hon. Members and people out there will accept are reasonable. My point is that there has to be flexibility. The NPPF provides flexibility while making significant statements about the importance of the green belt, which is absolutely vital.

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I will conclude my point, if I may. If the process for at least some scenarios needs to be flexible, as is the case here, we need to consider who is best placed to determine that flexibility. In my view, that decision has to be made locally because, in those very small instances, it is the localities and the local councils that will be able to make the best decision about what should or should not happen with this designation of land. That is within the wider context that, ultimately, the green belt should be released only in exceptional circumstances where there is a clear and compelling case to do so and when other things such as brownfield have been considered first.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In my constituency, 10,000 houses are being built on green-belt land. That does not seem to me to be an exceptional circumstance. It seems like riding roughshod over the green-belt policy.

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

As I have indicated, I cannot talk about individual cases, but I understand his point and the strength of feeling that he shares with other colleagues about the issue of appropriateness.

The hon. Member for Coventry North West made a substantial number of important points. Again, I congratulate her on securing the debate. I am not sure I agree with some of her slightly more partisan elements, but I will disregard them in the spirit in which this debate has largely been pursued. The reality is that everything in planning is a challenge. There is a balance to be struck and a set of trade-offs. There are no easy answers. We all share the same desire. I have a substantial proportion of green belt in my constituency, which I want to enhance to protect our natural environment. I want it protected so that everybody can enjoy it in future, as Christian Matheson indicated in his remarks.

We also want to ensure that people can get on the housing ladder—a point that was highlighted by the hon. Member for Coventry North West. The proportion of home ownership is not as high as it used to be, although it is starting to rise again. We have to balance these things, and that requires a nuanced and mature debate, which we have largely had today, with a recognition that there has to be flexibility in the system, as well as the great protection that is necessary.

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I really must make progress.

The hon. Member for Coventry North West talked about a failure to address issues in planning. I accept that there are always challenges in planning, but I wish to put on the record the importance of the 2 million new houses that have been built over the last 12 years—2 million families have had the opportunity to realise their dream of home ownership. Some 600,000 of those are affordable homes, and 242,000 were built in 2019 alone. Billions of pounds, whatever our views on whether that is sufficient, will have come forward in infrastructure to support communities.

The hon. Member for Coventry North West also highlighted the challenges in how the system works. I absolutely accept that there are challenges in how the system works, but ultimately this is a process where local authorities—I will not mention specific councils—have the power to bring forward a plan at the time that they wish. They should understand the context in which local plans are brought forward. They have the ability to both include and exclude locations, and they can set the overall framework in which development happens in a local area.

There is then clarity that allows developers, communities, individuals and those who are affected to understand what will and will not happen. Some authorities do that well. Some of those that perhaps do it less well could learn. I am unable to comment on Coventry specifically, but I hope the hon. Lady and her colleagues from the city will reflect on that.

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I need to make progress—I have only a few minutes. My right hon. Friend Sir Gavin Williamson talked about the duty to co-operate, and I hope we will be able to make further announcements on that in due course. I am happy to discuss it with him separately if that helps, given his interest in it.

Colleagues from various constituencies, including Matt Rodda and my hon. Friend Caroline Ansell, talked about brownfield land. I absolutely accept the huge importance of developing on brownfield land. As I highlighted, the national planning policy framework indicates the importance of that. A substantial amount of taxpayer subsidy has already been brought forward for brownfield land. There was only one announcement, back in July. I hope that, if hon. Members’ local authorities had the opportunity to bid into that brownfield land fund between July and August this year, they did so. Should it be appropriate, it is important that local authorities take opportunities to bid to build on brownfield land, and that they think through what they can do locally to bring forward additional brownfield land.

Rachael Maskell talked about investment zones. I place on the record that the expression of interest guidance for investment zones is clear on the environment: mitigation would be required of any environmental impacts of proposed investment zones. If local authorities that apply do not concur with that, their application would be failed. That is publicly available in the guidance on expressions of interest.

My right hon. Friend Damian Hinds made strong points about the importance of a diversity of approaches to ensure that we support housing need in local areas. I am happy to talk to him more about the land constraint point that he highlighted.

The hon. Member for City of Chester talked about the importance of green belt, which I have already talked about. I wholeheartedly concur with him on that point. He also highlighted water and storage facilities. Paragraph 160 of the NPPF covers that, but if there is a specific point he thinks I should be made aware of, I would be happy to talk to him separately.

My hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne and for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) talked about specific applications. I am afraid that I am unable to talk about those, but my hon. Friends have noted them. I completely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes about the importance of neighbourhood plans and the involvement of local areas in them. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mark Pawsey for raising the issue about his locality. Within the bounds of appropriateness, I am happy to receive further representations on that and to talk about it. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Reading East for highlighting the brownfield element.

In the 30 seconds that remain, I again thank all colleagues for their comments. It has been a useful and helpful debate, and I look forward to further discussions. If there were simple answers on this issue, I am not sure that we would be here today. If there were easy ways to resolve the very difficult trade-offs, I am sure that my many predecessors would have done so years ago, as I have been told on a number of occasions. However, it is good to talk and to understand the concerns in local areas. I am grateful both to the hon. Member for Coventry North West for securing the debate and to everybody for their contributions to it.

Photo of Taiwo Owatemi Taiwo Owatemi Labour, Coventry North West 10:57 am, 12th October 2022

I thank all hon. Members for participating in the debate and for speaking so passionately. Mark Pawsey and Sir Gavin Williamson spoke about protecting the green belt and giving more power to local people, so that they have a say in the development process. My hon. Friends the Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Reading East (Matt Rodda) focused on the importance of building on brownfield sites and protecting the democratic process. We all agree that building affordable houses, with proper infrastructure that meets the needs of the population, should be a priority for the Government. I hope that the Minister takes back all the issues that hon. Members have raised today and takes urgent action.

Will the Minister also meet me to discuss Coventry’s plan, and will he put on hold any green-belt applications currently put forward to Coventry City Council, so that the council has the time to review local plans and make decisions based on current ONS figures? Lastly, I thank all the activists who have campaigned to protect our green spaces, both in Coventry and across the country. They understand the impact that the issue has in their communities.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the impact of new developments on greenbelt land.