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Berkshire (Development)

Volume 78: debated on Wednesday 8 May 1985

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9.58 pm

I appreciate the opportunity to discuss excessive development in Berkshire. I thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for his courtesy and understanding, particularly when I led a delegation of constituents to his Ministry recently. I believe that his courtesy was a result not of his being a Berkshire resident, but because he appreciates the problem.

We in Berkshire who are opposed to excessive development are not Luddites. Over the years we have accepted large scale development with good grace. We are happy to allow modest infilling and further development, such as providing a five-year supply of building land. However, we are no longer asked to provide only that. Our area is one of natural growth and development and because of that the Ministry has decreed that we should find land for 8,000 extra houses in the central Berkshire area.

Berkshire is a narrow, east-west county. The eastern end, which covers part of my constituency, is within the green belt, so it cannot be developed. At the western end, there is an area of outstanding natural beauty on the downs, which also cannot be developed. Therefore, those 8,000 houses——

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Major.]

Those 8,000 houses have to be crammed into a relatively small area between Reading and Berkshire. The bulk of them will be north of Bracknell, which has been asked to provide 5,150 houses. That will destroy the local village communities—such picturesque villages as Warfield, Binfield, Chevey Down and Winkfield Row will be flooded with new houses. There are no more than 600 or 700 houses in Warfield, but it is expected to provide an additional 3,000 houses.

We have a responsibility to future generations to preserve these communities and our countryside. The development will take place immediately north of the town of Bracknell, which most independent observers believe is the most successful of our new towns. It has already exceeded its natural level of development and to extend it further would be not only dangerous to the surrounding villages but would do a great harm to Bracknell itself. That is why the campaign against further development has the people of Bracknell shoulder to shoulder with the villagers. They wish to have green fields and open countryside near their new town that they can use and enjoy.

We do not have the infrastructure to accommodate the new houses, and there is no way that in the foreseeable future funds will be available to provide adequate roads or ample schools and hospitals. Therefore, if we proceed with the new houses there will be terrible bottlenecks on the roads, longer waiting lists in our hospitals and further overcrowding in our schools where the pupil-teacher ratio is already far too high.

The developers tell us that there is a demand for the houses. I refute that, because there is not a local demand. Anyone visiting Bracknell will see a number of "For Sale" boards, many of which have been erected for many months. There is no shortage of houses for sale or to let. If the new houses are built, they will be purchased mainly by people moving out of London where, mainly under Labour-controlled councils and the GLC, they have suffered high rate increases. They will commute back to London each day on our good rail and motorway links to the capital city.

We have no objection to commuters living in our county, but it is fair to say that they do not take part in the local community in the same way as established residents. I do not see that the desecration of local communities and the countryside is right simply to provide additional houses for commuters who work in London as opposed to people who work in local industry.

National issues are also at stake. There is all-party support for the Government's excellent policy for rejuvenating the inner cities. However, that policy will not succeed if developers can build on green field sites in Berkshire and elsewhere instead of utilising inner city sites. I fear that by encouraging developers to move to green field sites, they will not take up the opportunies that the Government are creating by providing land through the register in the inner cities.

The taxpayers' money and the efforts of the Government—efforts which hon. Members in all parts of the House applaud—to rejuvenate the nation's inner cities will fail or, at best, succeed less than fully, if ample provision is made for houses to be built on green field sites. I assure the Minister, being myself a sometime builder and developer, that developers prefer to build on green field sites than in inner cities, if they have the choice.

Another important issue is the north-south divide. As an hon. Member who first represented a constituency in the great city of Birmingham and who now represents a seat in the south-east, I perhaps see this more vividly than most.

We should be encouraging development, employment prospects and industry to set up in those regions of the country where there is genuine unemployment. In my area there is not genuine unemployment. We have an extremely low level of unemployment and I submit that the majority of those who are unemployed in my constituency choose to be out of work, are unemployable or are playing the black economy to the absolute full. That is not true of the midlands and many parts of the north.

We in the Bracknell district council area have encouraged national and multinational firms to come to Bracknell and we have exclusively reserved our remaining few industrial sites for their future expansion, which has been greatly appreciated. At the same time, we have encouraged those starting up in business to proceed by way of small industrial units. In other words, we have encouraged industry extensively. But now the time has come to say that there are other parts of the country that need industry more than we do, areas whose employment prospects are grim by comparison with ours.

That was never more clearly illustrated than by the fact that more than 80 of my hon. Friends signed an early-day motion on the subject that I recently sponsored. It objects to excessive development in the south-east and encourages employment in the regions.

New issues have arisen since I last raised the subject on the Adjournment. Bracknell district council has unanimously passed a resolution condemning massive development and the Government's policy in that respect, and I remind the Minister that that council consists of 40 Conservative councillors with no opposition. In addition, each of the parish councils, where the councillors are either Independent or Conservative, have equally forcefully condemned Conservative Government and previous Labour Government policies of excessive development in the area.

Companies in Bracknell—many of them large multinationals with names that will be familiar to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—have all agreed through their trade and commercial organisations that they do not want further development. They say to me, "If we need a highly skilled, high-tech scientist to come to Bracknell, we know that he can find a house, because there are plenty of houses available to purchase. If we want a semi-skilled man to move from the regions to Bracknell, we know that houses are available to rent from the local authority. So there is no shortage of housing to affect our future prosperity as a company. When, however, we are fighting hard to find the right type of highly qualified people to work for us, we must offer an attractive environment, and that means an attractive new town with countryside around it. If you build on that countryside, as the Ministry wants, we shall face great difficulty in persuading people to join our company."

At the latest election on 2 May, Berkshire bucked the trend, unlike the rest of the country. There had been a hung county council. At the election, substantial Conservative gains were made and the Conservatives took control of Berkshire. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will agree that that was the exception to the rule on the rather sad evening of 2 May. The reasons for that result were twofold. First, we had known about the hung council and the Lib-Lab pact which had led to a 27 per cent. rate increase—an experience that some of the other county councils will face during the next few months. My electors in Berkshire objected to that. Secondly, there is a majority of eight at shire hall because five Conservative seats were gained in and around Bracknell. The Conservatives who stood as candidates in the wards stood on a staunchly anti-mass development ticket and each signed a declaration that they would do everything legally possible to fight that development at county and national levels. They hit the right note with the electors.

Berkshire, which was the sole light for the Government on the evening of 2 May, would not have shone so brightly if the Conservatives had not won those five crucial seats that gave us our majority. We won those seats only because of our staunchly anti-development stand. Every group in the constituency—the Tory-controlled Bracknell district council, the Tory and Independent parish councils and all my electors—totally oppose that development.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State must realise that there are not only environmental reasons why the Government must change their decision, or only economic or regional effects that should cause the Government to change their policy of mass development in central Berkshire. There are also good electoral reasons. If we believe in a democracy and elected representatives and if, after winning the county election on this firm ticket, we are stabbed in the back by the Ministry and the Government, I am not sure how we could go again to Berkshire electors with confidence to advise them that a Conservative Government believe in conservation of the environment, in listening to people of individual areas, in employment in the regions and in inner city rejuvenation.

I make a strong plea to my hon. Friend, who I know is immensely sympathetic, to ask our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Cabinet carefully to reconsider that out-of-date and misconceived policy initiated by the late Anthony Crosland and proceeded with by successive Secretaries of State of both political parties. It is time to rethink and time to change. We are making a grave mistake by proceeding in that way.

10.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) for raising the subject of the extent of the problems of housing and development in Berkshire. It is a subject that has taken a great deal of his interest and time since he returned to the House as Member for Berkshire, East. His constituents should be grateful for his endeavours on their behalf. He regularly raises the issue on the Adjournment and at Question Time, and frequently comes to the Department to discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend and myself. He is diligent on his constituents' behalf, which is why I welcome tonight's debate. His constituents will be grateful for the clear and forceful way in which he has put the matter once again.

The issue is of local interest and anxiety. I have been taking a great interest in the matter and have met delegations led by my hon. Friend and other hon. Members who represent constituencies not far from Berkshire, East. They are equally interested.

I am conscious that the pressures for development and conservation in the area must be balanced in the interest of prosperity. I shall ensure that I remain fully conversant with the area and its problems as a basis for discharging in due course my responsibilities in respect of development planning.

I understand that there is widespread local feeling that new housing developments should be contained. For the moment, however, the matter rests largely with the county council as the structure planning authority for the area. Last year, the county council published proposals for a replacement structure plan for the county as a whole to replace the existing structure plans for the west, central and east Berkshire areas. Recently, the county council published a stage 2 consultation document upon which it invited comment before 3 May.

It is now for the county council to decide what proposals to include in the replacement plan. Only when the replacement plan has been submitted to him will the matter come before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

I shall give way to my hon. Friend, and I hope that he will convey to those involved the congratulations of many Conservative Members on the excellent results of 2 May. There are lessons for everyone to be learnt from those results. They show the importance that constituents and ratepayers attach to local plans.

I shall be delighted to convey my hon. Friend's congratulations. I know that they will be greatly appreciated by my friends and colleagues who have been elected to shire hall.

On the point about the revision of the structure plans which are being considered by the county council, I believe that the county council would like greatly to reduce the numbers in line with public feelings. At the public meetings, it has been made clear, as I illustrated in my speech and in other conversations with my hon. Friend, that the development is not wanted. If the county council put up good reasons, as I think that I have tonight, to reduce dramatically the number of houses that the Ministry wants, will it be permitted to do that and, if the case is a good one, will it be favourably construed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

If I may speak for myself and for my right hon. Friend, I hope that all those points will be taken into consideration. We would have to take account of those requests, and clearly we would do so. I cannot give any assurances to my hon. Friend this evening, as he will understand, because we still await a completion of the documentation. I hope that it will be possible for the county council to push ahead with its proposals as quickly as possible and to present them to my Department for comment. Only when that process is brought to a conclusion will the present uncertainty at the rate of development not only in north Bracknell but in central Berkshire as a whole be brought to an end.

Given that that is the stage reached in revising the structure plans, it is not for me to comment definitively now, as my hon. Friend will understand. However, I am well seized of the anxieties that he has represented and of those of the 10 organisations that he brought to the Department. I thought that the case was presented in a balanced and coherent manner.

There is concern that the rural character of the area contributes to its economic buoyancy and to the readiness of employment generating activities to locate there. As a matter of general principle, and without in any way seeking to prejudge the issues and arguments relevant to the matter that my hon. Friend has raised, it is important that we should maintain the economic buoyancy of areas that are among the most thriving in the country. I endorse what he said, and I understand his arguments fully.

In maintaining it, planning authorities and, indeed, my right hon. Friend, will be faced with some hard choices, as they often are at national and local Government levels, in seeking to balance the need for development with the need to preserve the many good features of the areas concerned.

My hon. Friend has mentioned his doubts about the ability of the local infrastructure to keep up with substantial residential development. That most important fact was brought to my attention by other hon. Members who accompanied my hon. Friend when they came to the Department of the Environment, as was the pace and rate of development of the big cities and small towns in the outlying areas. Those who know the county well understand that. That is a matter of fact and judgment which I have no doubt the county council will seek to establish in the process of producing the replacement structure plan.

My hon. Friend referred also to the capacity of outstanding planning permissions to accommodate a considerable proportion of extra residential development which builders may seek to promote as they respond to local demand. Again, at present it is for the county council to form the best judgment that it can of the extent to which such consents can cater for the residential growth which it concludes is necessary in the area. It is for the county council to assess as best it can all the different matters such as population trends, household growth, employment, economic activity and so on, as well as the need to safeguard the quality of life in coming to a conclusion as to the proper provision for housing which should be made.

As I hope my hon. Friend will understand, time does not allow me to develop or to research as thoroughly as I should have liked many points that he raised in his speech. He knows that he can rest assured that we shall do everything that we can to ensure that his constituents can have faith in the workings of local and central Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Ten o'clock.