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Suburban And Urban Regeneration

Volume 403: debated on Thursday 10 April 2003

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2.

What environmental factors are taken into account in the regeneration of (a) suburban and (b) urban areas. [107467]

4.

What environmental factors are taken into account in the regeneration of (a) suburban and (b) urban areas. [107469]

5.

What environmental factors are being taken into account in the regeneration of (a) suburban and (b) urban areas. [107470]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Mr. Tony McNulty)

Regardless of area—be it urban, suburban or rural—the Government recognise that environmental factors play a critical role in successful regeneration and improving the quality of life for those who live and work in our towns, cities and communities.

I thank the Minister for that comprehensive answer. There are 120 local air quality management areas in this country. Some of them are in surprising places, and two of them are in my constituency. What assessment have Ministers made of the likely increase in the number of local air quality management areas as a result of the building in the south of England upon which they have embarked? Would they agree that air quality is a principal consideration in planning consent for such building?

I agree that air quality is an important factor in environmental matters. I do not know off the top of my head whether it is a material planning gain in all circumstances, which is slightly distinct from whether it is an important factor to be taken into account. I understand that both the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs consider the matter seriously. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life may add something in the spirit of harmony and parliamentary pluralism.

The hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) is right to say that air quality is sometimes bad in surprising areas. That is one reason why the mapping of air quality and the co-operation that is taking place with local authorities is very important. We wish to address the issue and improve not just the quality of air, but the quality of information.

Is the Under-Secretary aware of the Nar-Ouse regeneration scheme in my constituency, which has a huge amount of local support? It has the support of the local borough council, and it also has the support of the Deputy Prime Minister who came down during the last election to a tremendous fanfare. He came down to support me, which was very kind of him, and said that he was announcing the scheme. He also announced that it was to be a millennium community scheme.

Obviously, the scheme takes into account the point about regeneration because it deals with the regeneration of derelict land. Part of the site is a former fertiliser factory, and everyone wants the scheme to get the final go-ahead; there is a huge amount of local support for it. Will the Under-Secretary examine that scheme and do all that he can to support residents in my constituency to ensure that it gets off the ground?

I am pleased to hear about the level of support that the hon. Gentleman has, not in relation to the election campaign, but for the millennium community scheme. I shall do all that I can to ensure that—it and the other millennium community schemes throughout the country at various stages of development—delivers for the people in the area.

One of the largest regeneration projects in Europe is the Thames gateway area, which touches on the borders of my constituency of Rayleigh. As I understand it, the Government are due to outline their detailed plans for the gateway next month. In advance of that, can I ask Ministers, when there is a controversial planning application anywhere within the Thames gateway area, what the planning authority will be for the purposes of that application? Will it be the local district council in the normal way, the Thames gateway, or some other body?

The short answer is that it depends where in the gateway area the controversial or otherwise planned application is. The hon. Gentleman will know that we made announcements in the communities plan about particular configurations and mechanisms for delivery in various parts of the gateway. The specific answer to his question is that, if development took place in parts of London or Thurrock, many of the planning powers would rest with urban development corporations.

If the development were in south Essex, which I suspect is more relevant to the hon. Gentleman, it would be a matter for the local planning authority, because south Essex and many parts of north Kent have gone for a more partnership-driven approach rather than something specific in relation to planning power.

May I remind Ministers considering regeneration just how much local people cherish allotments, parks, cemeteries and public open spaces? They very much welcome the extra money that the Government are making available for them, but they find it a little puzzling that other political parties are keen to cut the resources available for such facilities. Specifically, will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department tell me what point we have reached on the question of the reuse of graves and the generation of income from that, which will ensure that cemeteries are looked after and are attractive, safe places where people can go to grieve?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Michael Wills)

I shall write to my hon. Friend, because I cannot give him a precise answer. From my own experience, I know how incredibly important the matter is, and I echo his thoughts about it. I shall write to him with a detailed answer.

I wish to bring to Ministers' attention the Leigh sports village, which is a pioneering regeneration scheme in my constituency. It will provide sorely needed, high-quality sports and education facilities in a deprived community, and it is due to be submitted for planning approval within days.

People in Leigh live in fear that a spotted toad or a great rare newt will be found on the site in the next few weeks. In some cases, environmental factors are not just taken into account, but are given too much weight in the overall calculation. I ask Ministers to advise Government offices, particularly the Government office for the north-west, to ensure that such schemes, which will improve the quality of life and have huge public support, are not derailed by what are, in some cases, marginal environmental considerations.

In the broadest sense, environmental factors are weighed in the balance with many other factors in deciding on planning permission. I would not underestimate the love or affection in which the spotted toad or whatever else is held. I shall not answer the question in its strictest sense, not least because I am the planning Minister for the north-west, and the matter may cross my desk. However, in general, we exhort Government offices to follow best practice when dealing with planning applications, to consider matters in the round and to include in the balance specific policy planning guidance for the area and the region, as well as other material planning matters such as the environment.

May I direct my question to the Minister for Sport, who represents a Sheffield constituency? In the context of urban renaissance, he will be aware that Yorkshire Forward has seven community schemes in our region, one of which is the Scarborough urban renaissance project. Fundamental to any environmental consideration is the fact that we have the sea at our front door, so we are tightly drawn on where we can go. An excellent aspect of the scheme is the partnerships that have developed between communities and individuals. Central to them have been cultural, tourism and sporting considerations. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that that type of approach—fundamentally, a people approach—is used in urban renaissance projects not only in Yorkshire but across the country?

Working with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, we changed PPG 17, which had been a real problem. It had not been revised for 10 or 15 years, but we changed it last year from a reactive to a proactive piece of planning guidance. It asks every local authority to examine its sporting needs in terms of open spaces and planning and to report to the Government.

If my hon. Friend remembers, the Government inherited a problem when they came to office in 1997. The previous Administration allowed 40 playing fields to be sold off each month. We curtailed that and now have a proactive piece of legislation that ensures that every local authority carries out a needs assessment. The stick is that the Secretary of State will reject any planning application to close any playing field or other sporting venue until the needs assessment is done. The ODPM and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have worked together creatively to ensure that the two things come together for sports facilities. We have also taken a view on greenfield sites and sports facilities. Again, it is proactive. I hope that it will lead to a much more sensible approach to sports facilities, which are badly needed throughout the country.

We are dealing with tourism through the regional development agencies. We have given them the powers and resources to address that very important industry, which has been the subject of under-investment and for which there has not been a strategic approach in the recent past. There are major economic drivers in relation to tourism and, in that sense, the RDAs are making it a major part of their plans for the economic renewal of many regions.

This is an opportune moment to raise a point that I was hoping to make if I caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on Question 6. I remind hon. Members that I am a trustee of the National Playing Fields Association.

I am sure that the Minister for Sport is not seeking to mislead, but the fact remains that the Government have not produced a single statistic to back up what he just said about 40 playing fields per month being sold off under the Conservative Government. We know from the Government's figures that 202 playing fields have been sold since the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister can confirm that the PPG17 guidance sets no test of need for recreation, but only a test of need for education.

Why is no account taken of the need or demand for other types of open space? That is in direct conflict with what the Under-Secretary said. Is there not a conflict of interest when a planning authority and a local education authority are parts of the same council? If the Minister for Sport and the Under-Secretary, to whom I am addressing my questions, disagree with my contention, would they happily meet me and other trustees of the NPFA? We believe that what I have said is exactly correct.

The hon. Gentleman's comments are not accurate. PPG17 puts a burden on all local authorities to do a full strategic assessment of the recreational open spaces used for education and other purposes in each and every area. It is in that context that such planning applications have to be determined. I recently met my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) to discuss PPG 17 and how it will be bedded in. At some stage in the near future, I will be more than happy to meet the NPFA again, with or without the hon. Gentleman in tow. However, he would, of course, be extremely welcome.