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Berkshire Draft Structure Plan

Volume 127: debated on Thursday 11 February 1988

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

10 pm

I am grateful, Mr. Speaker, for your selecting as a subject for debate the Berkshire revised structure plan. It is a matter of importance to my constituents in Wokingham and to the constituents of those of my hon. Friends who represent Berkshire constituencies and who are here tonight to take part in the debate, with your permission. I shall be speaking for all of them in relation to the revised structure plan and the Government's suggestions on it.

The message from Berkshire is clear. Over the six weeks of the consultation period, the county has been making the Government well aware, by many means, of its strong opposition to the proposed 7,000 houses that the inspector has recommended should be added to the substantial growth total already in the draft structure plan proposed by the county council.

Opposition has been expressed to the Government over the vagueness of the new use classes order and how that might apply to the guidance in the structure plan on the amount of development to be permitted for industrial and commercial purposes. We welcome some of the features of the structure plan as it stands.

We are grateful that the rapid rate of housing growth, which has been higher than 5,000 a year, should fall to 3,900 on the Government's suggestion, but we still feel that that is too high, as I shall explain. We welcome the Government's firmness of purpose, as stated in that document, to preserve the strategic gap between settlements, although some of us wonder how much meaning we can place on this when we see the decisions in some recent planning appeal cases, such as the Keep Hatch case, which seem to erode those vital green gaps between settlements.

We obviously welcome the affirmation by the Government that there will be strong support for those areas of Berkshire that are demarked as green belt or areas of outstanding natural beauty. But we are concerned about the pressures that will result on other parts of the county including, especially in my case, the Wokingham district where there is not the same protection because much of the land is not demarked as green belt or as areas of outstanding natural beauty.

We also welcome the Government's genuflection in favour of local discretion in many features of the plan. But we fear that we might yet again reach the position where the Government overrule many of these decisions, which are taken locally and exercise discretion in the best interests of the local community, by making a series of appeal decisions against the wishes of the people of Berkshire and their duly elected representatives. I should be grateful to hear some assurances from the Minister that where the local duly elected representatives exercise their discretion under the plan the Government will give them some backing.

We are considering here local authorities which have done more than their bit to accommodate the very rapid growth in the south-east in general, and Berkshire in particular, in recent years and which have never pursued a Luddite approach. They have accepted much of the growth, perhaps too willingly, and attempted to accommodate it. But there comes a point at which we must say that enough is enough and that we need a reduction in the growth rate.

I put the case to the Minister on two main grounds. I wish to deal with matters that relate to Berkshire. There are times when one must be selfish because all Berkshire Members are here to represent the interests of our county, to defend what is best about it and to ensure that its future growth and prosperity are based on sound planning. We wish to see the public consultation reflected in the Minister's decisions. The views of the public were canvassed extensively over two long consultation periods by the county council before the decisions were made about the revisions to the draft structure plan. The views of the local communities were entirely clear. They felt that they had had too much growth and they wanted to see a substantial reduction in it.

Many of our councillors have valiantly tried to make good-quality decisions to accommodate some growth and, at the same time, to preserve what is best in the countryside and in our local amenities and facilities. We need some assurances that loyal and hard-working councillors will not always be overridden to the point where they ask themselves why they bother to be councillors at all, if their decisions will always be overridden.

We need to know what Government thinking is on our public services. If we have rapid population growth of the kind that we have had, largely from inward migration, we must accept that there will be tremendous pressure on all kinds of public facilities. The Government have not been too ready to come forward with plans for major increases in public spending. When it comes to the schools budget, or the hospitals budget, we are told that things are difficult.

Why are we faced with growth that we do not want, without the resources to accommodate it properly, when other constituencies would desperately like some of that population growth or even some of those people to stay with them in urban areas which are properly serviced, but which are now contemplating school and hospital closures because there is insufficient demand for those services?

We also wish the Minister to take full account of the importance of the local environment. Berkshire has much beautiful scenery and the characteristic of the county rests upon the clear segregation of village and market town settlements one from another. We are in grave danger not just of the important green gaps between the major settlements being eroded, but of the gaps between the lesser settlements being eroded. The village and market town style will go for ever, to be replaced by one large urban sprawl. For that reason, we oppose it. Much as I like my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay), we do not wish to see our two major settlements amalgamated by a continuous urban sprawl.

Last but not least, we are extremely worried about the traffic pressures on the county's roads. The roads were designed for a much smaller resident population than we currently enjoy. If we wish to seek proof of what can happen, in the past 10 years traffic accidents in Berkshire have risen by 13 per cent., whereas elsewhere in the country they have been static or falling. That is evidence enough of the enormous pressures that we now see if we are foolish enough to try to drive to the House from our constituencies at peak time in the morning. It is impossible to make reasonable progress on the M4.

I wish to deal now with the broader national interests. I and many of my hon. Friends greatly welcome the Government's strong initiatives to redevelop the inner cities and to ensure that the prosperity of the country pulsates through the veins up and down the land. That requires that more of the growth, economic prosperity and new investment should take place in the great conurbations of the country, not continuously in the south-east— more especially, in a very narrow part of the south-east.

We wish to help this policy. Sometimes people are unaware of just how great migration has been in this country. Over the past 10 years, the leading conurbations have lost 100,000 people each or, in the case of Glasgow, 135,000. Even London, in the heart of the prosperous south-east, has experienced a net outward migration of 250,000 people. Over that same 10-year period, the south-east has had to absorb 500,000 new people, when it already had relatively full employment and a great deal of prosperity. Accommodating further moves on that scale will make nonsense of the Government's inner-city strategy and will do nothing to spread prosperity across the nation.

A similar imbalance in new housing goes with the migrating patterns. Is the Minister aware that new house building in London has slumped from over 30,000 10 years ago to well under 10,000 in recent years, despite the rebuilding of substantial chunks of docklands? There is evidence that in cities there is plenty of land available if it can be prised out of the public sector which keeps it, magpielike, and will not allow it to be developed.

We do not wish to see Hyde park or St. James's park built on. We would all like to see more parks in the inner cities. But the message is simple: the land is there for parks and for houses. We wish to see the Government's resolve strengthened to make sure that more of the vacant land is used and more pressures are taken off other parts of the country.

Sometimes people say to me, "Yes, but you are trying to rig the market. The market demands more houses in your area." The only reason why the market demands more houses in our area is that the market is completely rigged elsewhere. The planning system clogs development in inner cities, in the north and in many parts of the country. Because the public sector owns so much land and often does not wish to develop it, we have an entirely false market in land which makes it difficult for sites to become available.

Those matters are entirely within the Government's power. We all support a Government who believe in the planning system and that it has to be exercised with discretion and skill so that enterprise and market forces are not totally impeded. The burden of my argument is that the planning system is skewed and is putting far too much pressure on the south-east and not enough on the areas that most need development.

I should like to make many other points, but the Minister said that she would like almost 15 minutes to reply, and I would like, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, to allow two of my hon. Friends to intervene in this important debate.

10.11 pm

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) for allowing me a few moments to put the case for my constituency. We in Newbury are affected by the Secretary of State's proposals to the extent of having another 950 houses imposed on us in the Newbury and Thatcham area over and above the houses already agreed by the county council in its review of the structure plan.

The Minister will know that the county council put forward proposals for a further 36,000 houses in Berkshire for the period between now and 1996. In simple terms that means an increase in the county's population of about 100,000. That is an enormous number. Clearly, with those people will have to come the infrastructure of hospitals, roads and all the necessities that human beings need.

I am sad that the Secretary of State did not accept the figures put forward by the county council as probably the most accurate estimate that anyone could make of what is likely to be required for the county. I am even more sad that the Department of the Environment seems to be incapable of accepting that the local authority, representing the people of the county of Berkshire, might not conceivably be able to estimate more effectively and with more sensitivity the requirements of the county than can either the Department itself or the independent panel to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred the review of the structure plan.

I support everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham has said. He has raised questions which require deep answers. I hope the proposals will be reconsidered and that the Secretary of State will recognise that Berkshire has had as much development as any county over the past 25 years and that to allow still more development is to destroy one of the most beautiful of the home counties.

10.14 pm

I want to endorse the powerful case put by my hon. Friends the Members for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson). We in Berkshire feel very let down and sore. We think that the democratic process has been trampled on by the Secretary of State. All the hon. Members who represent constituencies in Berkshire, all the local authorities—parish, district and county—and all the people of Berkshire have recommended one course of action, and it has been completely ignored.

In my constituency, an additional 2,500 houses have been foisted upon us by the Secretary of State, on top of the large increase that we have already reluctantly accepted. That will affect not only the environment—our countryside will be ruined—but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham said, our infrastructure, as there has been no financial provision for roads, schools, hospitals and social services. That will put an unreasonable strain upon us.

There is a wider aspect, too. I have said in previous debates that we are not Luddites. We have accepted more than our share of development, but if we now proceed to allow developers the soft option of building on greenfield sites in the shire county of Berkshire we shall do irreparable damage to our excellent inner-city initiatives and increase the north-south divide.

For those reasons, I hope that the Secretary of State will reconsider what I believe are his unsound views on the modifications to the structure plan.

10.16 pm

I endorse every word said by my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), although I am not so much affected. We do not have the infrastructure or the facilities for roads—particularly roads—and schools, and we shall doubtless feel the effects of the construction in other constituencies.

On several previous occasions major decisions have been overturned by the Secretary of State. I hope that in future the Government will not attempt to overturn local decisions.

10.17 pm

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay), for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson), and for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn) for putting forward so clearly the deeply held concerns of many people about development in Berkshire generally and, more specifically, about the modifications that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State proposed to make to the replacement structure plan for Berkshire. I also note that my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) is in the Chamber listening to the debate.

Hon. Friends representing Berkshire have spoken in this House previously on the subject of development in Berkshire, and some attended and spoke at the examination in public held in July 1986 into the replacement plan. The views that they have expressed have been very helpful in articulating the strong local support for the county council's proposals to secure a sharp reduction in house building in Berkshire, at preventing urban sprawl and the coalescence of settlements, and at conserving and safeguarding the countryside.

I know that it is not just concern about safeguarding the landscape and environment that causes anxiety to my hon. Friends in Berkshire. There is also genuine concern about the consequences of increasing volumes of traffic and about the demands on, for example, social services, on health provision and education, caused by the pressures of an expanding population.

We recognise and appreciate these concerns. At the same time, however, the Government have the responsibility to consider and take into account the overall levels of population growth and housing demand in the south-east and in the country as a whole, as well as the importance of sustaining and encouraging national economic recovery. To say that is to imply not that Berkshire should be sacrificed to economic expediency but that, in deciding the levels of development appropriate in Berkshire, all these factors have to be weighed.

Therefore, the argument is not all one way. It is not only the county council's views or the views of those at present living in the county that have to be considered, however important these are. My right hon. Friend must take into account all the material factors. My hon. Friends will know that, because of its attractive environment and its economic vitality, there is considerable demand for more housing in Berkshire, and there is a need to consider what the social and economic consequences might be of denying such demand.

These are very difficult issues, but at the end of the day my right hon. Friend has to exercise his judgment in reaching his decision on structure plan proposals. As part of this process the opportunity is given for representations to be made both in favour of and against the county council's proposals, for selected issues arising from those proposals to be debated at an examination in public and for the panel to make its recommendations. My right hon. Friend is not obliged to accept these recommendations, but it must be recognised that the panel, having heard all the arguments and having studied the county at first hand, is well placed to reach a balanced view. It would be unusual for my right hon. Friend to disregard a panel's main recommendations unless there were reason to believe it had misinterpreted Government policy or had seriously misjudged some relevant consideration.

My right hon. Friend gave careful consideration both to the written representations and to the panel's report, but found no reason to disagree with the broad recommendations in the panel's report in respect of Berkshire's replacement structure plan, or with its particular concern that insufficient housing would be provided in the later part of the plan period.

My hon. Friend has made it clear that my right hon. Friend's proposed modifications to the replacement plan are not welcome to himself or his colleagues in Berkshire, or to many of their constituents, including the county council and most of the district councils. The reasons for their concern have again been put forward forcefully in this debate, but my hon. Friend will know that under the statutory process for dealing with structure plan proposals my right hon. Friend's proposed modifications will be advertised by Berkshire county council and a period of six weeks will be given in which objections and representations can be made to my right hon. Friend. This debate cannot be a substitute for that process, and I shall look forward to receiving detailed written comments from all those who have relevant points to make.

A number of points about the proposed modifications have been made by my hon. Friends. I cannot at this stage deal specifically with the comments made tonight since before my decision is taken it will be necessary to consider all the representations made during the objection period. These may include, of course, some which may suggest that the proposed modifications to increase the housing provision do not go far enough. My hon. Friend will understand that I have to show a proper reticence and will, I hope, forgive me if I do not appear to respond to his points. I can, however, assure him that very careful consideration will be given to all the objections and representations received before my right hon. Friend makes his final decision.

My hon. Friends will have seen the panel's report and the statement of reasons explaining the proposed modifications. It may be helpful if I make a few comments. A number of key points were made by the panel which are central to the panel's recommendations, and which my right hon. Friend has agreed and accepted.

First, the panel concluded that past high rates of house building should not continue.

Secondly, because of the high level of existing commitments to development, the major part of the housing proposed by the county council will be built before 1990. The county council saw this as leading to a very low rate of house building of only about 1,600 dwellings a year in the 1990s. However, the panel considered this level of housing to be too low to meet the needs of the naturally increasing population in Berkshire in the later part of the plan period even if the county were to cease to cater for in-migration of population from other areas. It pointed to problems that this might give rise to, such as increased pressures on existing housing, with high occupancy rates, suppression of household formation and more difficulty in securing housing for those at the bottom of the market.

Thirdly, the panel did not see the extra provision it recommended as requiring any breach of fundamental planning or other constraints. Fourthly, the panel did not consider the implications of the extra housing for traffic and other infrastructure and service provision were such as to rule out the increase. As I have already said, my right hon. Friend found no reason to disregard the panel's conclusions on those key points.

Notwithstanding the disappointment that my hon. Friends in Berkshire feel, they will recognise that my right hon. Friend's proposed modifications will result in a substantial reduction in house building rates, by about 2,000 dwellings a year from present levels in the county. Past and current high rates of house building in Berkshire are a result of the major growth area status given to central Berkshire in 1970, the strategic plan for the south-east, and reflected in the central Berkshire structure plan. Indeed, much of the housing proposed in the replacement plan is as a result of commitments to development under past policies.

Following my right hon. Friend's statement in June 1986, setting his new regional strategic guidance for the south-east, there is now no policy requirement to encourage major growth in Berkshire. For that reason, and having regard to the arguments put forward by the county council and by my hon. Friends, he has not proposed to accept the argument put forward by developers at the examination in public that a high rate of growth should continue. But nor does the regional guidance suggest that Berkshire should become an area of restraint of growth. In fact, growth is already severely restrained in much of Berkshire because of the extent of the area of outstanding natural beauty and the green belt.

On the matter of planning appeals, may I assure my hon. Friends that all appeals will be considered on their merits in the light of the structure plan and local plan policies. Once the replacement plan is approved, there will be a firm policy base for planning decisions.

It is frequently argued that development should be directed instead to the inner cities and less advantaged areas. I appreciate my hon. Friends' concern. I do not agree that allowing development in Berkshire is depriving those areas. We take the view that it is not the ready availability of sites in the south-east that keeps development out of the inner cities and other less-advantaged areas. Developers would no doubt tell us that the planning policies generally applied over the south-east make it difficult rather than easy to locate or expand there. No, the challenge is to make the inner cities and other areas places where people and industry want to live and work. The Government's promotion of their inner-cities policies is seen not as an alternative to growth in the southeast, but as an objective that needs to be pursued on its own merits. In our view, investment in places such as Berkshire is a separate strand of economic activity and provides a stimulus to the national economy that benefits the whole country, including the inner cities.

There can be no doubting the Government's determination to revitalise the inner cities. Since 1979 more than £3·7 billion has been committed to that work through my Department's urban group programmes alone. A comprehensive range of initiatives has been developed. We shall continue to build and improve upon those. In particular, we are making sure that the work of different Government Departments is co-ordinated and targeted effectively both at national level and, through the city action team, at local level. The Prime Minister has recently appointed my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to advise her on the co-ordination of action and its presentation.

However, the potential for development in the inner cities, as well as through the creation of simplified planning zones and through the use of urban land and the re-use of derelict land, will not meet all the housing and other development needs of the existing population of counties in the south-east. My hon. Friends and hon. Members will know that new, 1985-based sub-national population projections, published in an Office of Population Censuses and Surveys monitor on 19 January this year, show that there is continuing growth of population in the south-east. On the basis of those projections, the population in the south-east is now expected to be nearly 500,000 more than the 1983-based projections suggested. It is important to note that the major component of that continuing population increase comes from natural change rather than migration into the region. That reinforces the concern felt by the panel about the adequacy of the county council's proposed housing provision in the 1990s.

When we last debated the issue of development in Berkshire, in July 1987, I said that the way to resolve the planning problems in Berkshire was to complete the revision of the structure plan. The proposed modifications are a major step in that process. They reflect the panel's careful assessment that, while building rates should come down, more housing is needed than the county council was prepared to allow, and that the extra development can be accommodated in the county without serious problems. I reject entirely the view that the Government have abandoned their concern for the countryside. It has to be remembered that in Berkshire areas of outstanding natural beauty or of green belt account for almost 60 per cent. of the land area of the county, and I stress again that those areas are not at risk from the proposed modifications.

The planning geography of Berkshire, therefore, will lead future growth to be concentrated in those areas that are not specially protected, provided those areas can accommodate development without, as the panel put it, breaching fundamental planning constraints. I stress that the proposed modifications do not remove any of the county council's policies for the protection of the environment. Landscape and amenity considerations will remain an important factor in determining planning applications.

Now we must wait to receive the comments on the proposed modifications. I have noted all the points made tonight by my hon. Friends, and all those points and all representations we receive will be very carefully considered.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.