Order for Second reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I, and many people in Solihull, have been waiting a long time for this day. I had been in Parliament for only a few weeks when my name came up in the ballot for ten-minute Bills, so it is well over a year since I first introduced this Bill. I was a very green new MP, if hon. Members will pardon the pun, and I did not know my ten-minute Bills from my elbow.
Campaigning on the issues addressed in the Bill was in no small measure instrumental in getting me elected in the first place as the first ever Liberal Democrat in a seat held by the Conservatives for 60 years—ever since the borough was created—so when I was given the opportunity to introduce a Bill, I grabbed at the chance, despite knowing very little about how Parliament worked. I think that my naivety is in some measure reflected in the Bill, which tries to set right the wrongs in the green planning arena that I feel so passionately about. I apologise to hon. Members for the fact that the Bill is something of a shopping list—a basket of remedies for many of the ills that beset the lives of people who care about the environment in Solihull and in many other places in England and Wales. I thank the long-suffering staff in the Public Bill Office, who translated my wish list into a real, live Bill.
Solihull is a leafy suburb of Birmingham—a place in which many aspire to live. The motto of the borough is “Urbs in Rure”—or “town in the country”, for the non-Latin scholars among us. There are several very strong communities in Solihull, and the people who live there are proud of their area and passionate about their environment. What most frustrates people in Solihull is a feeling of powerlessness. They want a say in the decisions that affect their lives. They do not want councils or outside individuals making rulings that they disagree with but are not allowed to object to. What really hacks them off are decisions about their environment that lead to selling off green space that belongs to them and building on it. That is what has happened in Solihull.
I am trying to see where the hon. Lady’s argument fits in with my experience in my constituency. Perhaps the fact that the planning authority is of a different political colour makes the difference. I see, for example, the newspaper headline, “End planning consent, says Gummer”. I have not experienced the problem with my planning authority, so is it down to hers?
Different local authorities have different attitudes to the sale of parkland. The Bill seeks to protect constituents against the actions of planning authorities that wish to sell off parkland. If the hon. Gentleman gives me time to make some progress, I hope that that will become clearer.
In Solihull, despite a 12,000-signature petition, the Conservative council has sold off an area of more than 6 acres of parkland not once, but twice in the past couple of years to fund the rebuilding of a leisure centre. Only a few weeks ago, a final nail was driven into the coffin of another park in Shirley, where almost three acres were sold off so that an Asda superstore, other shops and housing could be built.
We needed the leisure centre upgraded and we needed commercial investment in Shirley, where the superstore will go. However, God is not making any more real estate and, since parks and green spaces belong to the people, surely they should have a say. To be fair, consultation has taken place on the shopping development, but one man’s consultation is another’s pretending to listen but doing it anyway. The development company did an excellent sales job and claimed that most people were in favour of the scheme. On the other hand, a local referendum claimed that 80 per cent. of local people were against the superstore. We need a local referendum on such an important issue so that people can have their say and ownership of whatever comes of the decision that they make.
The hon. Lady has not stated whether she believes that the Bill complies with the Human Rights Act 1998, especially article 1 of the first protocol of part 2 of the convention. Has the Bill been vetted to ascertain whether it complies with the Act?
The Bill was produced by the Public Bill Office, but I do not know whether it has been assessed for compliance with the Human Rights Act. However, I am sure that the Minister for Local Government will give adequate and learned guidance on that.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She mentioned holding a referendum. Has she estimated the cost of that to the taxpayers of Solihull? I fear that it would be an additional burden on their council tax and could perhaps pave the way for a Conservative Member in her wake.
I am sorry but I do not understand the last part of the hon. Lady’s remarks.
We are the low tax party, which does not like further burdens on the taxpayer. Has the hon. Lady estimated the extra cost burden on the taxpayer that a referendum would mean? Would it amount to an increase in the council tax in Solihull?
The hon. Lady portrays her party as the low tax party. Who will the tax cuts benefit most—wealthier people or those who are less wealthy? The Secretary of State would cover the costs of the referendum. There are social costs as well as financial ones. When one loses something of immense personal and community value, it is difficult to quantify the cost, and democracy must be used to save it.
I, too congratulate the hon. Lady. In my 14 years as a Member of Parliament, I have had six private Members’ Bills considered, and I got one on to the statute book—not a good record of achievement in legislation.
I have some sympathy with the hon. Lady’s desire to hold a referendum to ascertain local views, especially on issues such as that we are considering, because we appreciate that, once land is lost, it is lost for ever. However, has she considered conducting her own local survey, at no cost to the taxpayer, which would still deliver the verdict of the local people?
I am grateful for that intervention, because it enables me to say that I have done exactly as the hon. Gentleman suggests. We found in a local survey in Shirley that 84 per cent. of people were against building on parkland. However, those results, which were presented for the edification of the local Conservative council, have been ignored. A joint body, in which the council has entered a business arrangement with the developers, has conducted consultation that purports that the majority of people are in favour of the development. A consultation is only as good as the objectivity of those who conduct it.
The hon. Lady is generous in giving way and I have some sympathy with the Bill. She said that the Secretary of State would cover the referendum costs, but the Bill does not provide for that. Clause 7 refers to Parliament meeting the Minister’s costs. Where does the Bill suggest that the Secretary of State will meet the costs? What will the Bill cost the public purse? The House is in danger of buying a pig in a poke, without knowing the amount of expenditure to which we would commit the Government.
I am trying to express the way forward. People who are much cleverer than me will be required to implement the measure.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on promoting the Bill and I am sure that many of us are sympathetic to her aims and objectives. Clause 9, which is entitled “Interpretation”, lists the various forms of local authority that the Bill covers. Let us consider Northamptonshire. If the county council owned some parkland in Northampton and proposed to sell it off, would a referendum be county wide or restricted to the people of Northampton?
I am grateful for that thoughtful intervention. Any referendum would have to be proportionate to the effect on the local community. If everyone in the district stood to enjoy the amenity, the referendum should be county wide. However, in the case of a smaller piece of land, which was specifically enjoyed by a smaller local community, it would be appropriate for the people of that community to have the say because they would be affected.
I do not wish to test the hon. Lady’s patience, but it is customary when preparing such Bills to conduct a legislative and financial impact assessment. Has she had the opportunity to do that or is she relying on clause 7 so that the Government would sort that out on her behalf should the Bill be enacted?
I wonder how many of the Bills that have been tabled for consideration today contain such an assessment. The hon. Lady puts her hand up, which suggests that the Bill that she is promoting does so, and I congratulate her on that.
I hope that it does.
I hope that I shall have the opportunity to ask the hon. Lady the same question as she asked me, but I fear that we may not reach her Bill today.
I, too, have an awful lot of sympathy with the hon. Lady’s Bill. On referendums, however, her party, like ours, has always argued in favour of giving more responsibility for planning matters to local authorities. Surely referendums take responsibility away from the local authorities. Is not a democratically elected council the right body to make the decisions? She mentioned the example of the supermarket in her constituency. I presume that the supermarket concerned has carried out its own surveys and research and found out that an awful lot of local people want to shop in a supermarket in that area. Does not that, too, illustrate local opinion on the subject?
I, too, believe that such decisions should be taken as close as possible to the people who are affected by them. When I am permitted to make some progress with my speech, hon. Members will see that we are seeking to give local people more say. There would be a referendum if local people were not receiving the service that they wanted from their democratically elected representatives. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the ballot box is the final arbiter, but when something as precious as parkland is being sold off, we must take subsidiarity one step lower and ask the people themselves.
I have great sympathy with the hon. Lady’s Bill. I would like to see more local referendums and, indeed, national referendums. I am looking forward to the national referendums on the euro and the European constitution. Would she consider, however, putting into the Bill in Committee a threshold, so that at least a certain percentage of the people would be required to turn out to vote? The hon. Lady will know that some referendums have had derisory turnouts, and that action has been taken as a result of only very small numbers of people voting.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. That is something on which those advising us in Committee will be asked to bring their wisdom to bear. I am grateful for that helpful intervention.
My constituents in Shirley have no redress. The council, in partnership with the developers, has approved their own planning application and the sale of the land. The matter was referred to the Secretary of State, who made the fastest decision that I have ever seen to approve the application, with no public inquiry. I have described the local situation in Solihull, but hon. Members on both sides of the House will probably have similar tales to relate. Only this week, my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) has asked the Secretary of State for a public inquiry into the loss of half of View Lane park to development, the application for which was approved by Derwentside district council. I hope that he has more luck than I have had.
Before I leave the first part of the Bill, I want to say a few words about trees. I feel very much the same about trees as I feel about green spaces. Their lifespan is longer than ours and we should be their custodians and, wherever possible, allow them to survive unmolested—particularly when they have already been around for several generations. Right by where the superstore that I have described is due to be built, there is an almost unique example of an oak circle. An ancient 350-year-old oak is surrounded by a circle of oaks, saplings that it has produced which have grown up.
Trees can, supposedly, be protected by tree preservation orders. There is, however, an ironic story about our oak circle. I wrote to the council about the ancient oak and two other venerable trees in Shirley park, requesting that tree preservation orders be placed on them. The reply said that there was no need to have tree preservation orders for trees on council land because the council was a model custodian and would protect them. If ripping them up and putting a superstore in their place is an example of protection, I would not like to see what happened to something that the council did not want to protect.
Trees are under threat from all quarters. Another example is where developers want to develop a piece of land with mature trees on it, and, knowing that the presence of the trees could constitute a ground for objection, fell them before submitting their application. We need a general duty of care on trees over and above the tiny proportion that are covered by tree preservation orders.
As the hon. Lady will know, everyone in the Conservative party feels very deeply about trees. We have even made one the symbol of our party, so we are very concerned about the felling of any trees. I decry the felling of a 350-year-old oak, which simply cannot be replaced. Has the hon. Lady spoken to the developer about the replacement of that tree with many more trees, to ensure that the damage will at least partly be rectified?
The oak tree had just been announced as the symbol of the Conservative party when the sale of the parkland in Shirley was approved. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could speak to some of his Conservative colleagues in Solihull about that, because their first act, after the announcement of that new symbol, was to destroy a 350-year-old oak tree.
Has the hon. Lady spoken to the developer?
Yes, and there is a plan to make some improvements to the rest of Shirley park. I am not sure whether trees will be planted, but there will certainly be park improvements, which we are all looking forward to seeing. The hon. Gentleman has made a valid point, however.
Clause 6 is brief and requires the Secretary of State to issue guidance to local planning authorities to include appropriate protection for large or mature trees within planning guidance legislation.
The second part of my Bill is similar to the ten-minute Bill of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), which covers the practice that has become known as garden grabbing. I am delighted to support his Bill, which was introduced almost a year after mine. I am not aware that either he or any of his Conservative colleagues have supported mine to date, although the supportive comments from hon. Members on the Conservative Benches today would tend to contradict that, and I am grateful to them for their support.
Clause 3 looks at the planning guidelines that designate back gardens as brownfield sites. If it has not become apparent already, I must tell the House that I am no planning expert. To my simple mind, however, a garden is usually green, not brown. The intention of the planning guidelines is to ensure that brownfield sites are developed first. That is highly commendable, but the unintended consequences of designating gardens as brownfield sites can be seen all over Solihull, and in many other places. Developers see a relatively easy and cheap opportunity in an area where house values are high. They knock down a lovely old house with a big garden and build a block of flats—oops, sorry, I mean luxury apartments—in its stead.
Some people have accused me of nimbyism, because I am suggesting that building dense developments literally in someone’s back yard is not desirable. They could be right. After all, we need affordable homes, and we need lots of them. However, these so-called luxury apartments are not affordable homes. They are expensive, because developers want to maximise profits, and our council, at least, is failing to reach the affordable homes targets set by the Government.
The hon. Lady is speaking as though local authorities had no planning powers. I thought that it was Liberal Democrat policy to leave such matters in local hands. Any proposal of the kind that she has described could easily be turned down by a local planning authority.
I will develop that point at some length in due course. The problem is that, although a local authority might wish to turn down a planning application, it can subsequently be overturned on appeal to the Secretary of State.
When a further appeal is sought—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
May I finish answering the hon. Gentleman’s first question? Often, when there is an appeal against a decision, if the application does not conform with strict Government guidelines, the local authority has to pay not only significant court costs of its own, but the developer’s court costs, too.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, and I apologise for interrupting. She speaks as though there were no established planning process in this country. If an application is turned down and there is an appeal by the developer—although, in the example that the hon. Lady gave, it is more likely that it would be the householder who was appealing, as they would presumably support the development—the case would come before the planning inspectorate. Only exceptional cases would be considered by the Secretary of State. Cases of the type that she mentions would never come before the Secretary of State. With all due respect, she wants to overturn a tried and trusted, independent system for the sake of a bit of politicking.
I am surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I accept that there are planning guidelines, and if he allows me to make a little progress, I will explain in more detail how I propose to address the problems that he outlines.
I do not blame developers, who are in business to maximise profits. Dealing with developers is a bit like offering a child the choice between chocolate and cabbage—they may know that the cabbage is, in theory, good for them, but they will choose the chocolate every time. It is our responsibility in the House to ensure that the cabbage is eaten. We need good, affordable homes on the sites of redundant, obsolete buildings, and on ground that is currently polluted. Developers are entitled to some chocolate, but they must eat their cabbage first.
There is some hope in draft planning policy statement 3. I shall read an extract for the information of hon. Members, and I hope that it will answer the questions asked by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter):
“Although residential gardens are defined as brownfield land, this does not necessarily mean that they are suitable for development. However, in determining the policy approach, local planning authorities will need to have regard to the positive contribution that intensification can make, for example, in terms of minimising the pressure on greenfield sites.”
Local authorities can therefore refuse garden-grabbing targets, as long as they meet Government targets, including the target of building 60 per cent. of housing on brownfield sites.
The way in which planning applications are dealt with bears scrutiny, and the Bill proposes two changes. What really upsets many local people is the fact that they cannot appeal against a planning decision made by their council—only the council or the developers can appeal. Clause 4 therefore gives local individuals and bodies certain rights to appeal. Clause 5 deals with situations in which local communities have been worn down by repeated planning applications. In one street in Solihull, local residents had to fight 21 separate planning applications, which put great emotional strain on the community for years. I am glad that section 70 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 gives local authorities the power to decline to determine an application for up to two years, in the case of serial applicants. Clause 5 of my Bill extends that period to three years, both to deter serial applicants even more, and to give local communities a rest from planning pests.
The Bill may not be the tidiest measure put before the House, but I hope that, when voting, Members will recognise the genuine problems that it addresses. If the Bill is voted down, I hope that the Government will see fit to incorporate its contents in future legislation of their own. Parks, trees and gardens are a vital green lung in our communities. As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said, the sad fact is that when parkland is gone, it is gone for ever. For Shirley park and Tudor Grange park in Solihull, it is probably too late—the bulldozers are poised to move in. However, we have some parkland left, and parks, trees and gardens across the country desperately need and deserve the stronger protection that the Bill would give them. I therefore respectfully request hon. Members on both sides of the House to support the Bill.
I have enormous sympathy with the thrust of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), but as I tried to make clear in my intervention, her problem is that Solihull has a Conservative council. I have every sympathy, because I have to deal with a Conservative county council in my constituency. She was right to say, in her response, that different planning authorities put different values on the assets in their custody. Such values are not simply monetary—there is also the value to the community, based on the history and culture of, and the environment around, the assets of which they are custodians.
Having said that, I think that the hon. Lady approaches the problem in the wrong way. She has tried to be absolutist in her drafting of the Bill but, in some circumstances, that is counter-productive to good governance. I shall speak about trees in detail, because I have some knowledge of the subject, having planted many trees myself. A few weeks ago, I cut down a tree that had been a problem for a long time. I did so because it was in a dangerous state and because, after considering the cost-benefit of the tree to the environment, I decided that its contribution was not a positive one. It was a scruffy sycamore, and sycamores grow like weeds on my land.
We must be careful not to generalise. When considering the conservation and preservation of trees, we should bear in mind the fact that although the age of the tree matters, some species are more worthy of protection than others. Some trees grow like weeds, but others take a long time to grow. As part of the Mersey Forest project, various species of birch are being planted as crops, and they grow extremely fast. There is no logic in making such species subject to the Bill. However, the plight of the 350-year-old oak that the hon. Lady discussed is an example of desecration at its worst. It is absolutely disgraceful that people should have contemplated cutting it down, and I have every sympathy with her on that point.
The Bill as drafted is fundamentally flawed. I shall try to be helpful in my observations because if, perchance, it proceeded to Committee, and I served on that Committee—I accept that that is not a matter for me—I would certainly table amendments to address some important points. However, I would ensure that I did so in as deregulatory a manner as possible. Wearing my other hat—I am Chairman of the Regulatory Reform Committee—I see some absurdities that are based on well meaning but ill thought out regulations.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the nature of the Bill, which is attempting to achieve so much. Does he believe that it is amendable or should large parts of it be cut out? Would it be better to focus on one aspiration, rather than try to cover so many bases?
That is a good point, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman shares my concern about the disgraceful behaviour of Solihull council. To answer his other point, any Bill can be amended to achieve a desirable result. For example, the Companies Bill, which we dealt with over the past three days, had rather a lot of amendments, some of which were criticised by the Conservative party, but the House supported its spirit and general meaning. That is why many of our colleagues who were anxious to catch trains yesterday evening were able to do so.
My answer is that it is possible to amend the Bill to address the problems, although some of that would have to be done through wise intervention by the Government on issues of definition, because—I emphasise this point—the Bill uses the word “repeated”. Repeated planning applications must have a definition. The hon. Member for Solihull has made provision for regulations to be introduced, and presumably they would address that problem of definition. Had our dear old Friday friend, the late Eric Forth, been with us today, he would have stamped on me straight away for making that observation. He would have argued that that would be another regulation—
And taken an hour to do it.
As my hon. Friend says from a sedentary position, Eric Forth would have taken an hour to do that, with great skill. So, yes, I think the Bill is amendable.
On the sale of parkland by local authorities, I have general and specific concerns about clause 1(1). This is an absolutist Bill and it does not cover, for example, parkland owned by hospital trusts. Perhaps it should. At my local hospital, the Countess of Chester, which is not in my constituency, there has been a long-running battle over whether some land ought to be sold off. It is mature land that would fit the description provided by the hon. Member for Solihull.
I would be in favour of that land being developed because of the acute shortage of development land in and around the city of Chester. However, there is, by any definition, ample green space in that area, as looking over the city walls means looking over the beautiful countryside of north Wales. There is no acute shortage of green space—far from it—and plenty of green spaces in the city are protected under different statutes. The land belonging to the hospital would be covered by the spirit of the Bill, if not its definition, as it refers to local authorities, not hospital trusts, although it would be difficult to argue that local authorities should be included but other public sector landowners should not.
For example, the Ministry of Defence is a substantial owner of land that fits the Bill’s description. If we are to introduce such a Bill, we ought to incorporate all other substantial public landowners that remain, nevertheless, custodians of important wildlife habitats and amenity land for the public.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, as many public bodies have a lot of redundant land. To take an example from my area, we have not only an MOD site—which I may have the opportunity to refer to later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I catch your eye—but a lot of NHS land that is now redundant in relation to that purpose. Do my hon. Friend’s remarks apply equally to such land?
I agree with my hon. Friend, although I thought about taking issue when he used the word “redundant”. However, he then referred to land that is redundant for that purpose. There is an argument, which I shall come to in a moment, about the circumstances in which it may be appropriate for a local authority or a public landowner to change the use of land. I am slightly concerned that the Bill might be too prescriptive to meet the principal point made by the hon. Member for Solihull about dealing with rogue landowners such as Solihull council.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about NHS land, and we should look to widen the Bill’s scope to cover all sorts of parkland in public use. We should also cover other land. There were three mental institutions in my constituency when I was elected in 1992, two of which are no longer used for that purpose. What provision should be included to prevent a health authority from selling off land that falls outside the Bill’s scope?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I am not the greatest procedural expert in this place and I am not sure whether the Bill’s scope may be expanded sufficiently in that regard due to the definition that has been used in its long title. However, to take his example of old mental health institutions, if it were possible to do that, or if other legislation were introduced, there would have to be flexibility in relation to their use for other purposes.
For example, there is a rather beautiful building at the Countess of Chester site that, appropriately, is called the 1829 building—it is a mental institution of 1829. Clearly, it is not used as a mental health hospital any longer; it is an administrative centre. However, if someone were to make a planning application to incorporate the land and convert the building to flats, I would find it difficult to argue against the logic of it.
Many old mental institutions were asylums, and they had a lot of trees and open green spaces. Developing existing buildings is one thing, but building on the open green spaces, or even felling trees, is completely different from that. One of my local authorities is considering that issue, and we need protection for those areas too.
Again, I shall be slightly careful because the Bill does not have tight definitions, but I am assuming that the sale of parkland incorporates the sale of property that falls within the curtilage of the parkland. It is a fair point. The old chapel that would often have existed on land belonging to a mental institution would be covered by the Bill. That is perhaps wrong because it would make sense for that building to be utilised in a modern setting. Definitional problems need to be addressed.
That applies equally to parks that are clearly covered by the long title. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are welcome to visit my constituency office, as my hon. Friend the Minister has done. It is a converted stable in a park setting, and the office is rather beautiful. I should put it on the record that it is one of the best bits of value for money that any hon. Member has negotiated. That information is, of course, in the public domain these days.
The buildings in the parkland include an old family house that once belonged to the Grace family who donated it to Ellesmere Port and Neston borough council, which in those days was called Ellesmere Port urban district council. It was an amazingly generous gift. The parkland contains the old house, the stables and ancillary buildings. The buildings are used for public purposes. The house is used by the Action Transport Theatre Company, which may well have presented plays to school children in other constituencies because it has gone as far afield as South Africa. Some of the older buildings are used by a community gardening project, and my office is shared with Sure Start. Had the local authority not been able to find good community use for those buildings, it would have been a criminal shame to see them standing unused. An argument could be made for selling some of those where appropriate. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Solihull that that could be left to the whim of the local authority, but I am sure all hon. Members would agree that “where appropriate” is not as black and white as she suggested.
The hon. Gentleman mentions land that has been donated to a local authority by a charitable benefactor. Many pieces of land have been donated to Southend local authority, and conditions are often attached to the use of such land. Is he as worried as I am that some of the conditions in the Bill would cut across the original intentions of those benefactors on the usage of that land?
I am not sure about that. I have not considered that angle, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are often covenants on gifts to local authorities and communities, and those need to be considered when the Bill is examined further.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his extremely valid points. To develop the discussion point about benefactors, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) is concerned that the Bill’s restrictions would cut across conditions set out in covenants. That is important and we would need to examine it carefully. The first park I mentioned, Tudor Grange, was donated by the Bird family, famous for the wonderful custard that we still enjoy today. The problem in Solihull is that the land was donated for community recreational and educational purposes. The fact that land might be sold off to build houses when the original intention of the benefactors was for it to be used for community recreation and education shows how important it is to ensure that there are watertight restrictions in covenants and that when the experts get to grips with the Bill, as I hope they eventually will, we do something that accommodates his concerns.
That is a fair point, and the House needs to consider such issues in great detail. Let me illustrate that by explaining how important individual words are in Bills.
Clause 1(1) states:
“This section applies to land owned by a local authority which is”,
and then it sets out a definition of the land. What needs to be explained is whose opinion would be relevant when considering those definitions. Would it be my opinion, the hon. Lady’s opinion, the local authority’s opinion, or the opinion of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), who asked what would happen if the land is county land within an area governed by the district council’s planning authority? There could be a conflict and we need tight definitions so that we are clear that the opinion is that of a defined group of people.
We cannot rely on the opinion of the green-ink letter writer who no doubt communicates with all hon. Members in the Chamber. It has to be the opinion of a proper authority. The hon. Lady rightly and valiantly covers the concept of parkland associations in clause 2, and that is a valuable contribution to the debate. However, we need to be clear about whose opinion is relevant.
Clause 9 deals with interpretation and defines what we mean by a local authority. I hope that the precise definition of every word will not be the focus of the rest of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. I also hope that we can address the spirit of what the Bill seeks to achieve. Clearly, it will need quite a lot of work, as he says, by those who know a great deal more than I do for it to be brought up to the right standard.
I am grateful for that observation, but clause 9 does not define whose opinion would be relevant to clause 1. That is a fundamental drafting flaw. We need to be absolutely clear that the Bill would address the outrageous situation that the hon. Lady described. That cannot be done by Solihull council because it manifestly does not care about a 350-year-old oak tree. There needs to be a rational opinion that is sufficiently independent of the person selling the land, but the Bill does not define who would have that authority. I hope she accepts that it is necessary to amend it to address that problem.
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I agree with the hon. Member for Solihull that we should look at the thrust and spirit of the Bill, dealing with the complex issues in Committee. One solution to the problem of clause 1(1) is sometimes used in the USA where, if the inhabitants were concerned about what they deem parkland or open space, a certain number of signatures—say, 50,000—on a petition would trigger a referendum. It is then up to the people themselves to ensure that local authorities cannot mis-define a space of land and represent it as not being parkland in order to build on it. They cannot do so without a referendum.
That brings me neatly on to clause 1(2) and I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s observation. It is important for the House to be clear on these important matters. I thought it appropriate to explore with the Bill’s prime mover some of the issues before determining which side of the fence I fall on later today. As drafted, the Bill has problems.
On referenda—I prefer referendums, but I mention the pseudo-Latin style—it is important to examine the costs and benefits. If something as significant as suggested by the hon. Lady were proposed, having a referendum would be a good idea to test public opinion. A public consultation—not a referendum, but something similar—took place in my area, in which each household was asked to vote about residents’ parking, which had been a controversial issue. In the end, the local authority defined the scheme in consultation with the public and then put it out to a vote. That makes sense in certain circumstances.
I would be rather more careful—it is perhaps an issue of definition—in other circumstances. The hon. Lady may be too absolutist in saying that a local authority cannot sell “a piece of land”—any piece of land, however small for whatever purpose. I mentioned earlier the problem with buildings inside the curtilage of parklands. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) provided the example of an old mental health institution and I mentioned an old chapel. I postulate that it is a derelict building, so its value is fairly low—let us say £200,000 as I am not talking London prices, but those that the hon. Gentleman and I understand. If the cost of the referendum were £250,000, it would be barmy to proceed on that basis. That is why we need much tighter definitions.
I am not so sure that a building in a woodland or in an open space would be covered in any event, but let us say that it is. The hon. Gentleman provides the example of a £200,000 building and a referendum costing £250,000—but, frankly, so what? It would act as a deterrent to a local authority if it thought that the public was against the sale of part of the woodland. It could deter the authority from going ahead with the project. He says that the cost of the referendum could be more than the value of the building, but that is not the point.
That is why I said that we have to consider costs and benefits together. The benefit may be a potential purchaser who will do something inside the building that will have huge knock-on community benefits. The buyer may be a substantial player in the voluntary sector in the community, so the cost-benefits may need to be described differently. As I said, I am not an expert on planning law. The chief planning officer in my constituency, who has the same surname as me, would be able to spell out the position in no uncertain terms. No relation, but he is the expert on planning.
The Minister may be able to confirm this later if he does not have the information at his fingertips, but I believe I am right in saying that the definition in the long title would include anything within the curtilage of the parkland. I am not sure that that was the hon. Lady’s intention. I will back off if I am wrong and await further guidance.
I am not so sure. If there are buildings in the parkland, they would already be considered as brownfield development. With planning permission, the buildings could be converted, but the Bill looks to protect the parkland, trees and open spaces rather than the buildings currently within the parkland.
I will not develop my point any further, as it would be a waste of the House’s time. I openly posed the question so that the House could get an authoritative answer on the conundrum from the Minister.
I am happy to offer further clarification. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) has it spot on.
I await the magical guidance from the Minister after he has received his pearls of wisdom.
What the hon. Lady just said is important. It is her Bill and if it becomes an Act, Hansard can be used as proof of exactly what was intended by it. The hon. Lady has therefore answered the question perfectly.
Again, I am not a lawyer and I am not convinced. I think that the hon. Gentleman is not a lawyer either.
I strongly favour the concept of parkland associations in clause 2. The Friends of Whitby Park in Ellesmere Port have been enormously positive in their contribution to the park’s development. We were lucky enough to succeed in our bid to redevelop the park under the Heritage Lottery Fund, but I am convinced that the only reason for that success was the partnership between the local authority and the Friends of Whitby Park—an organisation that covers the interests of all the park’s users, from footballers and bird watchers to bowlers and many others. Dozens of different users work together positively in the interests of the park.
The hon. Member for Solihull has highlighted a good idea, although I do not know whether it is best for local authorities to establish such schemes or whether things should evolve from the bottom up. However, there are huge merits in such activity. I can tell the House from my experience how well such an organisation works and how well it serves Whitby park. It has provided checks and balances on top-down ideas coming from the local authority, as well as encouraging dialogue that brings into focus the needs of all users. When, for example, young people wanted a hardball court and a climbing wall, there was a dialogue through the community groups, agreement was reached and the end product is in place.
It is manifest that the organisation has made a positive contribution to the well-being and upkeep of the park. Sadly, as in all communities, a handful of vandals try to wreck all the good work done by those people, but the cohesive group that has been formed is more likely to hold at bay the excesses of that handful than if they had been a disparate set of organisations, so I welcome the spirit of the clause, albeit with one caveat.
I shall touch briefly on clause 3, which takes us into other areas, including the great temptation to reflect on the end of planning consent. According to The Daily Telegraph:
“The Tories would scrap planning controls on domestic properties…John Gummer, who is chairing David Cameron’s Quality of Life task force…said…that he intends to turn the planning system on its head.”
Alarm bells are ringing.
I would not want my hon. Friend to misrepresent the views of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I read the same report and my understanding is that the proposal is simply to do away with the need for planning consent on properties built after 1945, so a person living in a Queen Anne vicarage would be all right, but if they were in a 1960s council home they could do what they liked.
Indeed. On 28 August, in Planning, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) stated:
“It is time to scrap the planning appeals system.”
That is big stuff and we need to handle it with great care. I resist the absolutist notion of the hon. Member for Solihull that people cannot build in their back gardens in any circumstances; on the other hand, I resist equally the notion that there should be no appeal process.
May I clarify what the hon. Gentleman is saying? Does he mean that if a proposed development in his constituency was incredibly unpopular with the local public and was turned down by the local council, reflecting that public opinion, he would be more than happy for the planning inspector or the Secretary of State to overturn a decision made by his local constituents and his local authority?
I have an advantage over the hon. Member for Solihull: I have a decent, well-meaning local authority, which takes the views of the public seriously. For example, there was a series of planning applications for the masonic hall in Whitby—in Ellesmere Port, not in Yorkshire—but the local authority turned them down, not because the existing building has any particular architectural merit but because the plans included things that the hon. Lady suffers from in her constituency, such as the destruction of mature trees.
We need to tread cautiously. I am not a great fan of the existing system, because the developer has the right to appeal but an objector has little power in that regard. A David and Goliath situation can arise: communities v. large building companies. There is an argument for looking at how the appeals process works and for bringing equality into it, but, for the very reasons given by the hon. Lady, we need a mechanism whereby decisions can be removed from the local authority when it is acting against the public interest in a community; for example, the destruction of the 350-year-old tree. It is a great pity that there could be no further process of consideration to prevent that and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is contemplating how to achieve such a system. However, it will not be achieved simply by stripping out the planning appeals process.
My only remaining concern about trees is that the hon. Lady refers to
“the protection of large or mature trees in urban or suburban areas”.
I think there is a gap in the provision, so I urge her to delete the end of the sentence; it should end at “trees”. There is no merit in trying to create artificial boundaries between town and country. Many of us live in small rural communities but commute into large cities, such as London, so we are stakeholders in both town and country. The boundaries suggested by the clause are artificial and reflect the functions of earlier planning developments.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments on that point. The subject arose when I was taking the good advice of the people in the Public Bill Office. It was felt that agricultural purposes belonged to a different sphere and that it would be too complicated to try to legislate for agricultural situations. That is why agricultural land is not covered by the Bill.
The hon. Lady’s observation is absolutely right. The House recently passed a regulatory reform order governing the work of the Forestry Commission, allowing more commercial activity within the confines of lands owned by it. My Committee studied that matter in some detail. Where land is defined as agricultural land, it may be proper to leave the wording out of the Bill, but not every tree in a rural area is planted on agricultural land. They can be in domestic gardens, or on publicly owned land such as roadsides, and it would be a mistake for the Bill to draw an artificial boundary between suburban and rural areas, because there are trees worthy of protection that grow on such land. I hope that the hon. Lady will consider that point if the Bill reaches Committee.
Will the hon. Gentleman therefore propose an amendment to delete the words “urban or suburban areas” and simply exempt agricultural land? Is he similarly worried about an accurate definition of “large or mature trees”?
That could take us into another area that I do not want to go into, because it would take too much of the House’s time, but other definitional issues arise from this clause about species, size, exceptions and what happens when nature does huge damage to trees. An oak on the verge adjacent to my land lost a branch in the gales at the beginning of September. Of course, there would have to be exemptions for trees if, unlike that tree, they were so severely damaged that they presented a risk to the public. On the other hand, every sensible effort needs to be made to protect trees. I hope that the definitional issues can be dealt with sensibly as the Bill proceeds.
The observations of the hon. Member for Solihull have been valuable. Even if I were to choose at the end of the day to vote against her Bill, I would say to her that she has done a service to the House in bringing these matters to our attention, and in particular in bringing to the attention of the House the actions of a local authority that is not acting in a way that I think every hon. Member who has spoken thus far would feel was appropriate in the circumstances. I hope that when the Minister is contemplating what to do as a result of today’s debate, whether within the Bill or outside, he takes into account the difficulty that the hon. Lady has faced. She has been driven to write the Bill by a set of outrageous circumstances and we need a better mechanism of checks and balances on local authorities that do things that are so unpopular in the community. If the hon. Lady’s 84 per cent. figure is verifiable, that is very substantial opposition, and when so much opposition exists, local authorities should listen to the public. I am glad to say that in my case they do; sadly in her case they do not, but that might just be both of us criticising the Conservative party.
I shall make a short speech—certainly shorter than that of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), because he has covered most of the points that each and every one of us has reservations about. In congratulating the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), I have to say that Solihull has had a bit of a kicking here today, and I suspect that because it is a Conservative council it gives the Government and the Liberal Democrats even more joy to give it a kicking.
I do not know the specifics of that case, but I am also wise enough to know that we could identify examples where local authorities of all colours throughout the country have sold off parkland or other open areas, or school playing fields—where do we stop? Labour local authorities, Liberal Democrat local authorities and even independents have sold off land that the public would prefer had not been sold or developed. So if we can, let us step outside party politics on this issue and say that what we are looking for is an environmentally friendly measure. That is what it is all about, and I believe that everyone in this country has prioritised green issues far more than was the case 20 years ago. I suspect that some past decisions would not be taken now if we could turn back the clock, because of what we know about environmental issues.
I shall confine my remarks to the thrust of the Bill, because the specifics of the various clauses can all be dealt with upstairs. I am minded to support the Bill. I know that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said that he was in two minds as to which way to vote. He probably did not hear me, but I did shout across the Chamber, “Don’t worry—you’ll be told how to vote.”
This is private Members’ business.
I am sure that other people will be guiding the hon. Gentleman on this issue, but I am minded to support the Bill because the thrust is good and we can tackle the various issues upstairs.
The parkland in this country has been diminished over the years and we do not want any more of it to be lost. If the way to do that is to ensure that local authorities are handcuffed to their electorates—so that they are made accountable in new ways, in addition to people turning out once a year, or once every four years, to vote—to make them more mindful before they choose to sell off parkland, I think that is the right thing to do.
The cost of referendums has been mentioned, but we can always get around that because if land as it is defined in the Bill requires a referendum to take place, that could always be done at the time of a local election. The question could be added to the ballot paper, which would greatly reduce the cost of the referendum. That is done regularly in the United States of America.
I am sure that in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency there are regular elections to the local authority, but in London we have a one-size-fits-all election every four years. It would be rather difficult to expect any proposal for development to wait four years for a referendum to be tagged on to the local election ballot paper.
I fully accept that. There may be cases where we just have to hold a referendum and the cost has to be borne, and that is that—although we can be more imaginative these days, because we seem to be holding elections all the time. We are all in favour of democracy, but there is such a thing as electoral fatigue, and in some cases we may be reaching that. There are all sorts of elections, ranging from the London assembly elections to the European elections—even to general elections. I do not think that the public are so thick that they cannot manage to vote on national issues in a general election and on other issues as well. California is famous for that. They have what they call propositions, which are put on the ballot paper. Some are put on by the public themselves by signing petitions, so that control is taken out of the hands of local authorities or Government. The people themselves say “Hold on; we want to vote on this”, and if we believe in democracy, as we do, we can do that. We could even stretch that a bit further and conduct experiments in online voting, which would also greatly reduce the cost. So let us be imaginative.
The hon. Gentleman has come up with some very interesting ideas, but I draw the line at the idea of internet voting because it would disfranchise an awful lot of people who do not have access to the internet or are not computer literate. I would have classed myself in the second category several years ago, but I have improved. But I know that many of my constituents simply do not have access to these facilities because they cannot afford them.
I accept that. I would not argue, even at this stage, that we should introduce online voting in local authority and general elections. My biggest concern about referendums being carried out online is fraud. The public must have confidence in the voting method that they use, and until internet voting is improved, we have reservations about it. But we need to think outside the box, rather than assuming that a referendum needs to be a £250,000 exercise in which people turn out at polling stations and put crosses on pieces of paper. There are problems even with that system, with people being away, ballot papers going missing and so on.
No method is foolproof, but the concept that the hon. Lady proposes in her Bill could well be extended to other issues. Let us start somewhere. I am in favour of extending democracy. We all speak about devolution in this place, but we pay lip service to it. The best way to devolve any decision is to leave it to individuals to decide. If the public delegate the decision to their local authority, they have no more say about it. The issue in the hon. Lady’s constituency may never have been debated at the time of the last local election. All of a sudden it turns up and the public have had no say in it whatsoever. That is where a referendum would come in handy.
Indeed. The hon. Gentleman is making some excellent points. Another problem with local democracy arises when specific communities are represented by parties other than the party which has overall control in that area. The hon. Gentleman will be glad to hear that I am not seeking to make any more political points, but if the party that has control is carrying out some project in an area where opposition party members have been elected, that is not good for democracy. In the Shirley area, local people feel as though they have been forgotten, and that is potentially damaging.
I agree. That is why the Bill needs further attention in Committee and more detailed inspection. By its very nature, parkland sometimes sprawls over more than one local authority area. I have a great deal of open land in my area and people from all over Lancashire and the north-west come to visit it. They feel a sense of possession of that land and would feel aggrieved if a decision were taken in which they could have no say. I recognise that there would be a problem in extending a referendum to regular visitors to a parkland, but we need to ensure that everyone in the vicinity who would be affected has a vote.
I have sympathy with clause 4, which provides for a right to appeal against the granting of planning permission. One of my six private Members’ Bills dealt with that. I am in favour of the public being able to have a further say when local authorities are deemed to have given planning permission.
My final comment is about the trees, which have been mentioned time and again. The decision to fell a 350-year-old oak tree—if it was not dangerous or diseased—is appalling. It is shameful that something as historic and probably as beautiful—I have not seen it—as that grand oak has been felled. Has it been felled already?
In that case, I hope the local authority will think again. If it goes ahead with the development, I hope that it will be imaginative and find a way of preserving the tree.
On suburban and urban issues, I have sympathy with the comments of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston. The provisions must allow for flexibility in areas that are exposed to gales and hurricanes, where trees may be endangered, even on farmers’ fields. They must be careful to ensure that anything dangerous is dealt with or they could become liable. Local authorities would be in the same position. Although it is subject to interpretation, any legislation must be flexible enough to allow them to deal with it.
We should be more imaginative about the ways in which we conserve and preserve trees. Where trees must be felled to make way for development, the developer should be obliged to replace a tree that is felled with a number of other trees, to ensure that the environment is not damaged. We can consider the Bill in detail upstairs in Committee. Clearly it needs further attention, and we will all want to table amendments, but at least let us give it the chance of going into Committee. I congratulate the hon. Lady.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) on bringing these important issues before the House. I do not think I have ever been to Solihull, I have no intention of going there, and I am not even sure exactly where it is, except somewhere in the middle, but like the hon. Lady, we in my area suffer from a Conservative council, which is not as robust as it should be on a number of planning issues, to put it mildly.
I welcome the broad thrust of the Bill. It aims to protect the green belt and tackle some of the problems of overdevelopment. It is wrong to say that people who care about their local environment and the character of their area are nimbys. They are not. They are people with genuine concerns. The task for Government—national Government or local government—is to find the right balance between protecting the character of an area and meeting the desperate housing need of people who live in the area and are not being provided for. That is a difficult balance to strike, whether at national strategic level, at city-wide level as we grapple with it through the Mayor of London’s pronouncements on what we should be doing about housing, or at local level. There are often tensions between the different levels of government in that respect.
In my area we are extremely concerned about the extent of development that is likely to be undertaken. In my constituency, for example, over the next 10 years or so, I am expecting 10,000 to 15,000 extra households. That is in just one constituency. In the borough as a whole, we face the prospect of three to four times that—a huge amount of development. It is the fastest-growing part of London in terms of housing development, which impacts significantly on the character of the area and on the level of public services being provided. One of my main concerns about our local authority’s approach is that it does not seem to be coming to grips with the demand on public services that that additional growth will create, yet it sometimes seems to adopt a “rabbit in the headlights” approach to some of the applications coming its way. We need to think ahead about education, health—not only primary care, but acute care—roads and more mundane things like sewerage, water, electricity and gas supplies. The hon. Lady has done a real service in bringing these issues before the House.
I referred to the huge problem in my constituency. However, density is not necessarily a bad thing. I am not sure whether this is apocryphal or not, but the most densely developed area in Britain is the Royal crescent in Bath. That shows that with good design, density does not have to look horrible or make the area an unpleasant place to live. The challenge is how we can create the mixed communities that we need, using good design and making better use of land.
One of my main concerns with the Bill is that it appears to be facing two ways at once. It is somewhat dirigiste, centralising powers and taking them away from local authorities, yet other aspects of the Bill try to devolve powers down to the lowest possible level. As such, it may fall between two stools. I shall develop the point later.
We must be careful not to interfere too much with the powers of local planning authorities. Indeed, we should give them more powers. I am one of the signatories to the early-day motion which suggests that local authorities should be able to impose stronger requirements, for example in relation to energy efficiency in buildings to tackle climate change, going beyond the existing building regulations, which they are not allowed to do at present. In fact, local authorities should be encouraged to do that, rather than discouraged as they are at present.
I take issue with suggestions by the Opposition, as expressed by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who is reported to have made proposals to his leader, under the “quality of life” heading, to scrap building regulations and abolish the need for planning permission for alterations to non-listed, non-conservation area housing built after 1945. That would be a disastrous policy. The policy area “quality of life” also provokes a wry smile from me, because that was the name of the policy adopted by Lady Porter and Westminster city council—most hon. Members will know that I was the leader of the Labour group on the council during her evil regime—to mask her abuse of the planning policies of the council to gerrymander the area for her own political ends. Part of the gerrymandering scheme was never actually brought to light because the district auditor drew stumps after examining the housing allocation policy and did not examine the wider policies adopted. In any case, it is interesting to note that the phrase “quality of life” has been resurrected in Tory party policy.
Having said that I welcome the broad thrust of the hon. Lady’s intentions, I turn to the Bill itself. She has admitted, with reason, that the Bill is poorly drafted. Unfortunately, we have to address the Bill as it is before us today, not as she would like it to be. If the late Eric Forth had been here, he would have had little trouble in taking the Bill apart, and I shall seek to emulate him in expressing my concerns about it, as it is something of a curate’s egg.
On introducing a private Member’s Bill, hon. Members should apply some basic principles if they wish it to make progress. It should be relatively modest, it should attract cross-party support, and it should cost nothing or very little. My concern is that although the Bill has a degree of cross-party support for its objectives it is not very modest, as the hon. Lady has tried to pack too many aims into it. Each of the separate clauses of the Bill could be a private Member’s Bill in its own right. Perhaps she has been a little ambitious. The more issues in a Bill, the more likely it is that someone will object to one of them, leading to the downfall of the Bill.
I am also concerned that the Bill has no price tag. I raised that point in an intervention in the hon. Lady’s speech earlier, and it is incumbent on the House to have a rough idea of how much legislation will cost before passing it. We also need to know where the costs will fall, be it on the Government or local government, and on the respective taxpayers. People in my constituency are very concerned about the level of their local taxes, and the Bill contains no provision for the costs to be defrayed.
My main concern crops up in the first line of the long title, which reads:
“To impose conditions on the sale of parkland”.
I take exception to the word “sale”, which means disposing of land permanently, in this case presumably to a developer. But how does that address the problem of the multifarious ways of developing land that may not involve sale? For example, in my constituency, the local authority is engaged in three major regeneration schemes of council estates—Spur Road/Stonegrove, West Hendon and Grahame Park—and it has come up with all sorts of complicated arrangements and partnership deals. It is arguable whether the land is being sold, leased or is still partly in the council’s ownership. One could argue that it had been sold for £1, but a case could also be made for the opposite view. By restricting the Bill to sale of land, the hon. Lady would create a series of loopholes for local authorities to use, if they were so minded.
The Grahame Park estate is a major regeneration scheme designed to create a large number of additional homes in the area. I take grave exception to the scheme because it will provide no additional social housing. Indeed, it will result in the net loss of social housing units, which is bizarre. It is funded by a large growth of properties for sale, but part of the scheme involves building on a significant area of green land around the pond. It is a dense scheme and it will eat into the green land on the estate. One of the key issues is the way in which the local authority has consulted people, and it has not had a ballot of those living in the area affected, as the hon. Lady suggests should happen. It would have given the scheme more credibility if proper ballots had been held, focused on the area. I agree with the hon. Lady on that point, and it has certainly been a controversial issue on the estate and more widely.
I am also concerned that the long title states that the Bill applies only to local authorities—an issue that I took up in an intervention in the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), who helpfully raised the issue of land owned by the Ministry of Defence. My constituency contains a lot of MOD land, much of which is called Inglis Barracks and will probably be sold off next year when the British Forces Post Office moves from the site to its brand new premises elsewhere in London. That will release an enormous site for housing development, most of which is green, but will probably be classed as brownfield land under any normal assessment. That disposal would not be covered by the Bill.
My constituency also contains the old Hendon airfield, which was the first in the country and a major second world war airfield. It has been nibbled away and built on over the years, and the MOD disposed of the last big chunk about 10 years ago. It was called the RAF East Camp site and it is now a major housing development. Although it was technically a brownfield site, before construction started it certainly looked like a greenfield site. There are difficulties of definition of brownfield, greenfield and parkland, and the land in question would certainly have fallen within the scope of clause 1(1)(e). While it may have been a brownfield site, it had certainly contributed to biodiversity in the area. The Bill is broadly drawn, and would probably have caught that site.
Large NHS sites are also disposed of, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. The new Edgware hospital, opened by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last spring, was in large part financed against the sale of land no longer required on the site. It was a brownfield site that will be redeveloped for housing, and that was a beneficial land disposal. In the not too distant future, the Colindale hospital site will be disposed of, after the elderly residential patients are moved out. The land around the hospital is mostly parkland.
My hon. Friend’s remarks highlight the point that I made about referendums. In that instance, a referendum of those living in the area covered by the hospital trust might have produced one result, and a referendum of the immediate residents another. A referendum of my hon. Friend’s constituents might have produced yet another result. That shows the difficulties with the definitions in the Bill.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I shall develop later in my remarks. The Edgware hospital site is actually on the frontier of my constituency, and of the London borough of Barnet with the London borough of Harrow. People on the Harrow side—and the Brent side, which is a little further south—would have had a large say in whether the hospital should be redeveloped as it has been, to create the brand new community hospital. Under the phraseology in the Bill, they would have been excluded from that decision-making process. Therefore my hon. Friend makes an important point, and I shall later give a few further examples of the possible impact of it.
I have concerns about the disposal of land by other bodies. We have mentioned the MOD and the NHS, but there are many other public authorities that perhaps ought to have been caught—especially as, if the disposal is being done by central Government, that is far more democratically remote than if it is done by a local authority. Even if the Bill is not enacted, if a decision is made to dispose of land, the local authority can, in theory at least, be voted out by the local people, whereas the decision-making processes at national level are far more remote. Although individual Members might jump up and down about particular disposals, they will obviously be relatively less influential than members of local authorities at local level. In that context, the point is stronger.
Clause 1(1)(a) refers to
“an area of scattered mature…trees”.
I am concerned that there is no definition of how big that area is. Is it the whole county? If we were to look at any county, we would probably find that there are
“scattered mature…trees overlying pasture or arable land”
dotted around it. There is no definition of how dense that scattering may be. In fact, “scattering” implies the opposite of dense; it implies a less dense spread of trees than the hon. Member for Solihull might wish.
It means the area that is being sold; that is what falls within that definition.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that clarification, but it will not do. It could be an area with one tree on it—or perhaps two trees—that was being sold, and that could be part of a much bigger piece of parkland. In such circumstances, the hon. Lady might like to think about whether this provision might allow development “bite and hold”, nibbling away a bit at a time. Therefore, I wonder whether the hon. Lady ought to be looking at this matter a little more broadly—although perhaps not as broadly as my more extreme suggestion. There is a problem in that regard.
The second provision in the clause is otiose. Why does subsection (1)(b) state,
“which may (but need not) be of particular landscape of historic significance”?
That either is or is not a relevant factor, and if it is neither, it should not be in the Bill, because if it is included, that will simply create money for members of my former profession, who will argue about what those words mean. They are otiose. The hon. Lady either wants this provision included or she does not, but she cannot have it both in and out at the same time, which effectively is what the subsection proposes.
To move on, the phrases “public garden” and “purposes of public recreation” are relatively straightforward, but what exactly does “a disused burial ground” mean? Often, large parts of burial grounds are disused while other parts some distance away are used. In that context, let me refer back to my experience on Westminster city council. Most people are aware of the appalling scandal of the Lady Porter regime—one of its first scandals—when it sold three cemeteries for 5p each, and the asset stripping that came with that. Coincidentally, although Westminster city council owned the cemeteries, two of them were situated in the London borough of Barnet—one of them in my constituency, and another in the neighbouring constituency of Finchley and Golders Green.
If we are to dispose of such cemeteries, this question arises: who will be consulted as part of a referendum? Will it be the relatives of people buried in the cemetery; Westminster council tax payers, who own the cemeteries that are being disposed of or London borough of Barnet residents, where the cemeteries are situated? I would have been happy with any of those options, if they had been in force at the time when Lady Porter decided to sell off the cemeteries.
Or the pension funds.
Or the pension funds, as my hon. Friend the Minister says. I would have been happy with any of those possibilities when Lady Porter decided to sell those cemeteries for 15p, because I am sure that regardless of which permutation she chose—one, two, three or all of them—the result would have been the same: a massive rejection of the scheme. Nevertheless, Lady Porter forced that plan through against all common sense, leading to a huge asset-strip and the spending of more than £1 million by the council to reacquire them, less all the development land that was sold and redeveloped at a great profit by the developers—as explained at great length, and very entertainingly, by Andy Hosken in his book “Nothing Like a Dame: The Scandals of Shirley Porter” about the years of the Porter regime, in which I have a bit part.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does. To be a bit irreverent, I could observe that in some elections even the dead vote; there have been cases of that happening. To return to the point, however, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that burial grounds cannot be disused: if there are bodies there, they are clearly being used, even though there might not be any fresh burials there. If there were any form of referendum, I suspect that whichever of the permutations mentioned was chosen, the people would vote against.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend—
Hon. Friend in this context, as he agrees with me. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) for his contribution, and I invite him to disassociate himself from the Conservative Lady Porter regime of 1980s Westminster. So far, we have heard no condemnation of any of the activities of Lady Porter from Conservative Front Benchers at any stage. When the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) replies to the debate, she might like to put the record straight on the sale of the cemeteries and the new definition of her party’s policy that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal has come up with, which I referred to earlier—and, indeed, on the housing policies, which might feature later in my speech.
My hon. Friend has drawn attention several times to the Porter regime, and I do not think he gives himself full credit. He played a great part in bringing down that regime. I recently read “The Westminster Whistleblowers: Shirley Porter, Homes for Votes and Scandal in Britain’s Rottenest Borough” by his former colleague Paul Dimoldenberg, and I recommend it to Conservative Members, because the points that my hon. Friend raises today about what is happening in Barnet suggest that the spirit of Lady Porter might be walking abroad in west London again—a matter I hope to turn to later.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because I also get a mention in councillor Dimoldenberg’s book, to which he refers. One day there might be a third book on the subject, when I finally get round to writing my memoirs. I do not have much time for that at present, as I am representing my constituents in this House. However, we never know, and one day there might be a third version of the story.
I have explained my concerns about clause 1(1)(d). I also have concerns about subsection (1)(e), because the same argument as before arises: what is an “area” in this context? However, my main criticism of this provision is to do with the wording
“particularly benefits wildlife and biodiversity”
and how we define that.
I gave the example of the RAF East Camp site in my constituency. It is now rather more grandiosely called Beaufort Park by its developers St. George—not that that stopped it being burned down in spectacular fashion earlier in the summer, when it was under development. It had become something of a nature reserve, primarily because it had been fenced off from the public for a long time. However, that is difficult to define. Obviously, we have the definition of a site of special scientific interest, and we have relatively small ones dotted around the country. Perhaps the best way of protecting such sites would be to say, “Well, that’s the threshold that should be applied.” We must have a reasonable balance. A relatively small piece of land can be designated as an SSSI, so if land needs to be protected under this provision, the definition ought to be cross-referred, and there is always the opportunity of applying for SSSI status or a similar classification.
At present this is vague, and it is difficult to say whether an area particularly benefits wildlife. We could say that any piece of green land benefits wildlife. If there is a blackbird pecking on it looking for a worm, it is benefiting that blackbird, but it might not be of general benefit.
Not to the worm.
Yes, certainly not to the worm.
I shall now move on to subsection (2), and the discussions that we have been having about the issue of referendums and consultation. I mentioned earlier the sale of Westminster city council cemeteries. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston raised another such example. There is a major concern in that, if consultations are not properly done or defined, they can be rigged to produce the desired result. The best recent such example in my constituency was Barnet council’s decision to reopen Partingdale lane—a country lane that had been closed off at one end by the previous Labour administration, in accordance with the residents’ wishes. The council was determined to reopen the lane and had a fake consultation, which the residents challenged successfully through judicial review. A further, much wider consultation took place, which inevitably produced the result that the council wanted, because it was spread so wide that those most directly affected—those who actually lived there—were completely outvoted by those for whom the road might provide rather tenuous potential help with their transport links. So there is a real problem with how we define who should be consulted in a local referendum.
I am also concerned about the possibility of referendums serving to undermine, rather than strengthen, local democracy. There is certainly a need for much better and more effective consultation on the part of local authorities, but I question whether referendums are the best way of doing it. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley came up with a whole series of very interesting suggestions, but I should be concerned if such referendums were linked to local government elections or, indeed, any other elections. There is always the risk that a single issue, which might not be fundamental to the governance of the local or wider area, could become dominant, to the extent that the election becomes a single-issue campaign.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point, but I recall that as we approached the European elections, the Prime Minister gave us a referendum on the constitution in order that he could separate out that issue and that people could vote on the constitution. He felt that without such a referendum his own chances might be damaged. As it was, it did not really matter, because he did very poorly in the European elections. However, my point is that a referendum can actually strengthen democracy by separating out the issue in question.
Order. That is taking us far too wide of the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman is making my point, which is that we should separate out such issues rather than put them together. I thought that originally he was arguing the opposite, but there we are.
If local elections take place and there is a referendum on the issue in question, that strengthens local democracy, because people have a specific say and they can vote whichever way they like for political parties.
Accepting your constraints, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we are probably straying a little beyond the terms of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman and I may have to differ, although it is probably a question of horses for courses, according to the nature and scale of the issue to be consulted on.
I am also concerned about the issue of referendum participation rates, which was raised by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley. In my local government area, the electorate is some 350,000. If only 5 per cent. of the electorate turn out at a referendum—whether or not it is linked to a local authority or other election—because only 5 per cent. are affected by the issue in question, we are talking about an enormously expensive operation for a very limited benefit. Moreover, what will it tell people at the end of the process? The hon. Gentleman hit on an idea when he talked about the experience of California, where a proposition can be put on the ballot paper, but only after it has been petitioned by a certain threshold of local government electors. Perhaps that is the way forward. The presenting of a petition by a certain percentage of electors in a ward, constituency or borough is a possible way of triggering a referendum. We certainly need some form of threshold.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the criticism of the Californian system? Sometimes, there are as many as 200 propositions, and even though two might be contradictory, both get passed. Often, the budget is completely confined by the propositions, which makes California ungovernable.
The hon. Gentleman predicts my very next question, which is, how does one have such a system without undermining the whole democratic process itself? If we are to have the occasional referendum on whether a particular piece of land should be sold, that is one thing. I am certainly not advocating the extension of the California system in its entirety, whereby every issue under the sun would be balloted at a local election or otherwise. We are talking about a relatively limited issue, but I should be concerned if the decision to hold a referendum on the disposal of land became a Trojan horse for referendums on a whole batch of other issues as well. In my view, that would certainly undermine the whole principle of representative government on which our constitution is based.
I question whether clause 2 is really necessary. In my area, various friends’ groups maintain and try to improve parks. Establishing a parkland association seems an extremely bureaucratic and formalised way of proceeding. How does the hon. Member for Solihull expect a local authority to ensure that an association is properly representative of the local community?
The clause states that a local authority “may” establish a parkland association. I took on board the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), who referred to top-down and bottom-up approaches. As far as our group is concerned, a bottom-up approach is generally preferable.
I hear what the hon. Lady says, but clause 2(2) also imposes a duty on a local authority in terms of the representative nature of an association. I suspect that no local authority would adopt that permissive power, because it would create far more problems than it would be worth. However, in a given area—we all have such areas—two or three local people might be very exercised about a particular issue, while others might be half-interested and most not interested at all. The latter group might be rather more representative of the community, by definition, than those who have taken a specific interest. It would be very difficult to ensure that such an association was appropriately diverse in ethnicity, age, occupation, interest and so on, particularly in a very diverse multicultural constituency such as mine, where a plethora of different groups and interests would need to be represented. So such a way forward is rather a pious hope.
Clause 3 gives rise to a very important issue that is at the heart of the debate surrounding development and affordable homes. In my area, one often finds on turning a street corner that the old houses have been knocked down and a block of flats has gone up. That happens far too much, particularly on the main roads in my constituency, and it seems to be a trend that is impossible to stop. We need to think about how we can protect back gardens from overdevelopment, but to be entirely prescriptive in the manner of the Bill is to over-egg the pudding, because the Bill provides none of the balance that might be needed in a particular area. I am with the hon. Member for Solihull, in that this issue has to be taken into account. However, the Bill gives no indication of the size of garden in question. In my area, gardens range from several acres, at the rich end of the constituency, to postage stamps at the poor end. Different considerations might well apply to those two extremes and to the range in between.
The development of back gardens is a major concern for residents of Mill Hill, in my constituency, where the big gardens and houses happen to be located. Some people have sold off their back gardens to developers, who have applied for planning consent to build four or five houses on that land. That raises access issues, as well as the question of overdevelopment. However, if what are virtually slum clearance projects relating to houses with very small back gardens were caught by the provision, that could work against the benefit that the hon. Member for Solihull is trying to achieve. Perhaps she therefore needs to think a little more about that, although the broad thrust of trying to protect back gardens and zoning them as greenfield sites is appropriate. We must do something to protect what is, certainly in my constituency, part of the green belt, even if it is not formally defined as such.
We must not, however, allow nimbyism to get in the way of trying to provide homes for people in our areas who need them. There is a desperate housing shortage in my constituency, which the London borough of Barnet seems to be doing very little to address. Its new housing strategy does not seem to put anything like sufficient emphasis on, for example, the need for social housing. In London, the purchase of what are termed affordable homes, even with the subsidised schemes available to buy properties, is still way beyond the means of many Londoners, including in my constituency. The only real hope of new housing for such people is social housing, which, unfortunately, the London borough of Barnet—completely wrongly, in my view—seems little concerned to provide. Whatever conditions and ideas are put forward on planning, we must make sure that they do not prevent people from having the housing that they desperately need.
My hon. Friend rightly cites Barnet and many other Conservative councils as taking that line, but is he aware that Liberal Democrat councils also tend to do so? For example, only 13 per cent. of all the units built by Islington council are affordable housing. I do not want to put words in my hon. Friend’s mouth, but is he implying that the spirit behind clause 3 is a Liberal Democrat view that development on brownfield sites and of affordable housing is not appropriate?
I think that the hon. Member for Solihull can speak for herself about that, but my hon. Friend makes an important point about the Liberal Democrats’ interest in the need for social and affordable housing. The Lady Porter policy—perhaps my third reference to it today—of gerrymandering took place through the planning process as well as through housing allocation and the sale of council homes. I suspect that, in certain parts of London, we are seeing a resurgence not of Rachmanism but of Porterism in the way that housing is allocated and dealt with through the planning process.
Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman recognises that that subject would be better dealt with on another day.
Of course, Mr. Speaker. I was just coming to the end of that point, as I realised that my digression through history and the byways and highways would make you somewhat unhappy, although, sadly, I think that it has some relevance to the modern world.
As we try to square the circle of protecting the green belt and providing the necessary housing, some of the suggestions to resolve development and zoning problems are becoming progressively wackier. The most bizarre suggestion came in the summer from the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who said that we should reclaim and sell underwater land to developers, which would encompass
“a mighty city called Thames Reach”
being built in the east Thames corridor. Venice is sinking, and the Tory party housing policy is also sinking fast if it is based on what he has in mind.
To return to the specifics of the Bill, the hon. Member for Solihull needs to think a little more about clause 3. I do not object to her intention to protect greenfield back gardens, but we need to be more precise about the language and thresholds used, and perhaps provide some countervailing argument in relation to housing need. As I said in my opening remarks, on the one hand she is trying to adopt a localising policy in relation to a referendum, while on the other the clause is very centralising, and contains no provision to take account of local circumstances and local needs. It is just too prescriptive. That brings me back to my earlier point that the Bill is a little too ambitious. I am not sure which hon. Gentleman initially proposed the Bill to deal just with this one issue; I spoke in support of that Bill in principle at the time, although with some reservations about the wording. To achieve the right balance, however, a self-contained Bill with more than one clause dealing with all the different aspects is required.
On clause 4 and the right to appeal against granted planning permission, the hon. Lady has hit on an interesting subject. People in my constituency get very cross when the Conservative-controlled council gives planning consent to projects that, frankly, it should not allow. Other than judicial review, which is virtually impossible in planning cases—rather than the cost, the law itself gets in the way, as the test is so high—local communities have no remedy whatever to challenge decisions of local planning authorities. With regard to clause 1, that is particularly so where the development is one in which the local authority may be involved, as in the case of the schemes in my constituency that I mentioned, and it is giving itself planning consent to do its own thing. Where is the check and balance in the democratic process to control a local authority giving itself planning consent? At the moment, there is none, other than the Secretary of State’s call-in powers, or perhaps the new extended powers that will go to the London Mayor. Those powers are a very blunt instrument to deal with an issue that might not merit such huge attention, and they are very hit and miss, as the Secretary of State, with the best will in the world, will not involve himself in an issue that is relatively small beer nationally, although it might be a big concern locally. The hon. Lady needs to work harder on the wording. There are all sorts of different development plans, and all sorts of sub-plans, such as area action plans. Some work on definitions is therefore needed.
In addition, who is permitted to object to the application? That is where I bring in my concerns under the Human Rights Act. As the hon. Lady might know, I am Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, although my Committee has not considered her Bill—which I suspect she is not surprised to hear—so I am speaking from my immediate impressions rather than from any considered legal analysis. I would be concerned, however, about whether the clause engages article 1 of the first protocol of part 2 on protection of property. Does it affect property rights in a way that may contravene the Human Rights Act? I asked her earlier—I suspect that the answer is no—whether she had had her Bill monitored or proof-read, as it were, for compliance with the Act. If it does not comply with the Human Rights Act, the House has no business passing it.
The reason that I raise this issue is that several conflicting property rights are involved. There is the question of proportionality, which the Human Rights Act reflects, as well as the property rights of the person who owns the land that will be developed, perhaps the property rights of the shareholders of the company that owns it, and the property rights of people who may not be on the land but whose house prices may be affected by a development. All those conflicting aspects have to be taken into account when such measures are proposed.
Again, there is the question of a society “sufficiently representing” local amenity interests. All our constituencies have effective and well-established amenity groups. For instance, my constituency has the Mill Hill Preservation Society, an active group that considers such issues, and I pay tribute to its sterling work and the money that it sometimes has to raise to fight appalling planning applications which it seems the local authority might permit or it sometimes has to raise on appeal. I have no doubt that it is representative of the local community, and 100 or more people turn up to its annual meetings. We also know, however, as we are all politicians, that it is often relatively easy to set up behind the scenes a front organisation for a political party or for a small group of people in order to hijack an organisation if it is not well attended and effective. I would be concerned at growth in such front organisations or in the hijacking of organisations, which the hon. Lady’s Bill as it stands might provoke. Will she explain how she would define a society that sufficiently represents local amenity interests?
There is also the question of how a local amenity is to be defined. There could be differences of view. I agree with the hon. Lady in principle about the need to allow appeals against planning consent if it is obviously contrary to planning guidance and local authority planning policies, however they may be expressed in whichever document, but she should tighten the definition of those who are entitled to object. If we are not careful, the planning inspectorate, which is already bogged down with appeals against refusals, will become bogged down with appeals against consents as well.
The right to appeal should exist, although I hope it will never be used. It might cause those who make planning decisions to be a little more careful about what they say, and a little more considerate of local feeling, which is often overlooked. In particular, constraints imposed by the Standards Board for England suggest that councillors representing particular wards should not participate in the planning process, which strikes me as an Alice in Wonderland approach to planning. Wherever that approach originated, it needs to be sorted out. In my view, someone who has been elected to represent an area should be able to speak out on behalf of his or her constituents, whatever the Standards Board may say. If that is against Government policy, so be it. I feel quite strongly on the subject.
Did the hon. Gentleman vote for the Standards Board?
I suppose I probably did, but not for the way in which it is operating. I have grave reservations about that. In fact, I sponsored a debate on its activities a while ago, referring particularly to the case against Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg for leaking documents that led to the exposure of the fix to settle with Lady Porter. I will say no more, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I see you are about to tell me off for straying down the highways and byways of Westminster history yet again. My basic point is that the hon. Lady should be a little careful about the definition, although I support the basic thrust of clause 4.
Clause 5 deals with repeat planning applications. My area has been bedevilled by them. One problem with which the law has yet to get to grips is the submission of applications that are a little like those that preceded them, but not sufficiently similar to be classed as repeat applications. We need to examine that aspect of planning law, and adopt a rather more broad-brush approach. If the site is the same and the application is more or less the same, it should be deemed to be a repeat application.
We all know what developers do. They will try to buy up a row of family houses with options to winkle out people who do not want to sell. They will put in a planning application for 50 flats, which is turned down. They will then put in an application for 45 or 40 or 35 flats. Each application will be just different enough not to be caught by the regime, in order to wear down local opposition. That should not be allowed. We need a much tougher approach to such behaviour by developers.
The hon. Lady suggests a three-year rather than a two-year threshold. She has not said why she feels that two, three or, for that matter, five years would not be equally appropriate. Perhaps she will tell us why she plumped for three years. I do not think that the two-year period has caused any particular problems. The real problem with the present rules relating to repeat applications is the one that I have just described—applications that are not really different from those that preceded them.
Clause 6 concerns trees. Like everyone else, I like to hug a tree, although not an oak tree with a green top—when it is a logo, that is. I am quite happy to hug an oak tree for real. What worries me is that although the clause refers to
“trees in urban or suburban areas”,
there is no reference to trees in general. Examples were given earlier of trees in rural areas that ought to be protected. What about those trees? Perhaps the hon. Lady should delete the reference to urban or suburban areas, and refer simply to the preservation of trees more generally. Development is taking place in the countryside. I know that that is, to a degree, a politically controversial issue between the parties. We all want as much development as possible on brownfield sites, but inevitably there will be some encroachment on green land, and in those circumstances we should ensure that mature, historic trees are protected as much as possible in that environment as well.
Clause 7 refers to expenses. I challenged the hon. Lady on the subject earlier. I am concerned about the fact that we have no indication of the potential cost of the Bill. We might have a rough idea if we considered the clauses one by one in relation to our constituencies, because we all have a pretty good idea of what is happening on or own patches, but the notion that we could assess the likely cost nationwide is an impossible dream.
At this point I should put on my Eric Forth hat. The late Eric Forth would have taken the hon. Lady to pieces, but I shall try to be a little more gentle. As she has presented the House with a Bill that is likely to cost taxpayers money, we need to know what the cost will be. For instance, will the cost of an appeal against a grant of planning consent be borne by the appellant, the developer or the central Government taxpayer, through the planning inspectorate? A plethora of appeals against grants could lead to a very expensive operation.
We also need to know the potential cost of the referendums proposed by the hon. Lady. We can all probably work out what the cost would be in our constituencies, but how many referendums does she expect to be held in a year? Answering that question would require a breakdown of the number of planning applications and land disposals taking place in a year, which would be a major research project in its own right. Until we have a grip on the scale of the problem, it will be impossible to attach a price tag. The hon. Lady ought to do a bit of research to try to establish, perhaps by means of a survey of local authorities, how many such cases have arisen in the past five or 10 years. That would produce an average number of cases, from which it would be possible to calculate the likely number of referendums and, in turn, the cost involved.
The hon. Lady said in her introduction that the cost of the referendums should fall on the central Government taxpayer, but the Bill gives no indication of that. There is no cross-reference between clause 1 and clause 7. As it stands, clause 7 would apply only to central Government costs, and as far as I can see the lion’s share would result from the planning appeals clause. It seems that the cost of a referendum will fall on the poor old local government taxpayer. That may not be a bad thing, but if there is to be a trigger mechanism, people ought to be aware of what a referendum will cost them in council tax. The importance of the issue could then be weighed against the cost of consultation. There is a lacuna in the Bill with which the hon. Lady must deal: what will it cost Joe Public in income or council tax?
Regulations under clause 8 would be made under the negative resolution procedure. I have concerns about that, given that we are talking about significant property issues. Why has the hon. Lady chosen to implement the Bill through the negative procedure instead of the affirmative procedure to which such issues are much more suited? Particularly as regards some of the key planning issues, I should think that the House would want to have its say through the affirmative procedure instead of merely trying to annul proposals from the Department.
I turn to the commencement provisions. Clause 10(2) says that the Bill would come into effect within two months of its passing through Parliament. That is a rather ambitious timetable. There could be several consequences if the Bill came into force so quickly. A blight could suddenly be put on a scheme that is halfway through because no one has had time to prepare for the Bill. Planning blight is already a problem. We could find that people are trying to trigger referendums all over the place without giving any thought to the bureaucracy involved for local authorities in implementing them. A mandatory two-month period would leave no wriggle room to make the Bill work.
There is also a danger that if the period is too long some local authorities that were thinking of trying to dispose of parklands might bring that forward. We must be careful about the timing.
The hon. Gentleman makes another important point.
What else might happen? If the Secretary of State had to issue guidance on back gardens, I suspect, knowing the wheels of Whitehall, that it would take rather more than two months to draft guidance on such an important issue affecting so many people. I have highlighted several of the issues and problems that would have to be addressed in such guidance. There would have to be consultation among interested parties as to how it should be drafted, as is always the case, rightly, when PPGs are issued. Local authorities, developers and community groups would have to be consulted to ensure that the guidance to the local planning authority is correct. That consultation period would have to take more than two months. There is nothing in the commencement date provisions for different commencement dates for different clauses, as might have been appropriate.
If there were to be appeals against grants for planning consultation, the planning inspectorate would have to gear up for them. The Bill would require it to do something that it has never been asked to do before. It would have to hire and train additional staff to cope with an inevitable increase in appeals, as well as undertaking a degree of retraining for existing staff as to what criteria they should take into account when judging such appeals, and developing the basic ground rules for the process that would need to be established. The cost regime would also have to be worked out and consulted on. The hon. Lady needs to think about some of the implications.
Clause 5 refers to a period of two years or three years. Where did the three-year period come from? I suspect that it was plucked out of the air. The Department would need to consult people more widely about the practicalities as regards the appropriate period to determine whether it should be two years, three years, or possibly longer. It would have been better for clause 5 to give the Secretary of State a regulation-making power to vary the two or three-year period after appropriate consultations, with an affirmative resolution placed before the House.
Clause 6 deals with guidance to local planning authorities on the protection of trees. The Secretary of State would be required to issue guidance under section 197 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. We have canvassed several different ways in which that could be achieved, and whether it is necessary to extend the provision to rural as well as urban and suburban areas. There may be a need to have different guidance in different parts of the country. Rural development may require different guidance from urban development and, again, from suburban development. Each aspect would require wide consultation with amenity groups and, I suspect, arboricultural experts as well as local authorities. The idea that one can achieve such consultation and produce the guidance in two months is wishful thinking.
When considering cost, we must not forget the Treasury—the elephant in every room when we discuss private Members’ Bills—and the provision that it would need to set aside for the Department for Communities and Local Government to enable it to meet the additional costs involved. Budgets are always under pressure and we would need additional resources to meet the planning inspectorate’s costs. Local authorities will not have factored the cost of holding referendums into their budgets and perhaps we should be more sympathetic about allowing them to budget for such matters.
There are several alternatives to clause 10(2). I agree with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley that the period should not be too long. However, what constitutes too long a period? Allowing for the consultations, drafting and budgeting processes, it would be difficult to bring the Bill into force in a shorter time than 12 months. An alternative would be to provide that some clauses were effected at a time that the Secretary of State “may or shall prescribe.” That commonly happens with such Bills.
To safeguard against local authorities trying to dispose of land in the interim period, perhaps the Government could let them know that, if they tried such tricks, their applications could be called in.
That is another sensible suggestion from the hon. Gentleman. We could have some transitional provisions or instructions from the Department that such behaviour would be viewed dimly. However, the hon. Member for Solihull should reconsider clause 10(2), because two months is far too short a period and somewhat overambitious. I understand her enthusiasm for the Bill, but if she wants to reintroduce it in the next Session—it clearly has little prospect of making progress this Session—she might like to ponder on some of the concerns that have been expressed today about its drafting and perhaps return with a measure that was a little more modest and better worked out.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sure that you recall that, at the beginning of today’s proceedings, the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), while telling us about the early hour that he arrived here and the excitement with which he reads every day’s Order Paper, said that the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) had disappeared from the Order Paper since yesterday. I believe that approximately 15 private Members’ Bill have disappeared, but not that promoted by my hon. Friend, which did not appear on yesterday’s Order Paper. The hon. Member for Hendon may therefore have inadvertently misled the House. I am sure that, in the interests of accuracy, you will want to correct the record, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I said to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) that the quality of his original point of order was such that it did not strictly constitute a point of order. However, I have now allowed the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) to make a counter point, from which I am sure the House will benefit. If he is correct, all our sympathies go to the hon. Member for Hendon because a little more attention to detail would have spared him an early morning alarm call.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) on promoting the Bill. I agree with much of its content although, by her own admission, it is not the tidiest measure. I would not be so critical as to use the word “untidy”, but the number of clauses and the breadth of the subject matter that the Bill attempts to cover do not make for good legislation. However, they make for a good, extensive debate.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) spoke of the Grace family in his constituency. In Southend, several families have donated land to the local authority for a specific purpose. I am particularly concerned about circumstances in which land has been donated to the local authority with the express intent of being used for educational purposes in the town. If that land were left as parkland, and nothing were done with it because of a lack of investment, the terms of the Bill could mean that that parkland could not have a new city academy built on it, for example.
Similarly, it would be impossible to adapt for other uses land that had been donated for use as a sports facility and was being used as a playing field. Nowadays, however, people do not go out and play rugby, football or hockey as much as they used to; instead, they are more likely to undertake sporting and fitness activity in a gym. It might therefore be more appropriate that the land have a gym built on it for public use, rather than remaining as a playing field.
I am sorry to intervene on the hon. Gentleman so early in his speech. It is certainly not the intention of the Bill that anyone should be precluded from building on land that has been specifically intended for such a purpose. The intention is that local people should have a say in the matter.
There might be a contradiction between what local people want now and the original intention for the use of the land. For example, I have played sports a number of times on land that was given to the local authority specifically for the use and benefit of a big company in the town. If that company were to move away from the town, would it not be more appropriate to sell the land—for whatever purpose, and to whatever company, including a supermarket—so that other land could be purchased near the new corporate headquarters? Sometimes what local people want and the original intention for the land do not match up perfectly.
Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), I am not a great supporter of local referendums. The example of California clearly demonstrates what can happen when we reach referendum overload. Moreover, certain propositions within a referendum can be contradictory, and, if used too frequently, referendums can be detrimental to local democracy.
I enjoyed the lengthy contribution of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). It is unfortunate that he is no longer in his place. I felt, however, that he did his modesty a disservice with his constant references to the late Eric Forth. I knew Eric only for about a year, but I think that the hon. Gentleman has a little more to do before he reaches the dizzy heights of my late right hon. Friend.
Clause 1 refers to “a piece of land”. If my reading of this provision is correct, it is a little too prescriptive. I can imagine areas of parkland of which only a modest element may be given up, in which case a consultation would not be needed. For example, there might be a proposal to build a small road down one side of a park to allow access to a larger area. Also, proposals to use small pieces of land for certain purposes would not need to be subject to the same degree of consultation as others relating to larger projects. Building an Asda supermarket on parkland, for example, is materially different from building a small scout hut in the corner of a piece of land.
On behalf of local authorities, I was angered by the proposal in clause 2 that
“local authorities may establish a parkland association”.
I do not see why they should not already do so. Independent elected officials do not need to wait for me or any other Member of the House—or the Secretary of State—to give them permission to establish such an association. Clause 2 also says:
“The Secretary of State may make regulations about parkland associations.”
I believe, however, that the House already gives Secretaries of State far too much power to regulate, and to give them the power to regulate parkland associations that are, at the moment, rather ill-defined would be very unwise.
I enjoyed reading clause 3, and I support most of its provisions. However, I have already mentioned that the Bill covers too many issues—indeed, the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) deals with the development of private gardens in a lot more detail. I recognise, however, that including clause 3 has given us another opportunity to support the move to make building on the back gardens of private houses slightly more difficult.
Clause 4 is about the right to appeal against planning permission granted by local government. Again, that is a laudable provision, but I am not sure that it fits particularly well in the Bill. In Southend, some of the ugliest buildings were built by the local authority. Certainly, the civic centre, which was built in the 1950s and ’60s, would benefit from demolition. If one went around any town centre pointing out the worst buildings, one would find that they were usually built by the local authority or by Government. The same duty of care, and the same protections in respect of quality of architecture, should apply to local government and Government buildings, and to private sector buildings.
Clause 6 on the protection of trees is interesting but, again, the subject is very complicated, and I suspect that any measure that could do it justice would run to many pages. A number of hon. Members expressed concern about the phrase “urban or suburban”, and the hon. Member for Solihull responded on that point. I suggest exempting agricultural land—that would do the job, and it seems that it would not present any further problems. Several hon. Members spoke about problems arising from different species of tree, and the lack of a definition of large and mature trees. Certainly, that needs to be sorted out.
There has been a lot of emotive talk about the 350-year-old oak tree. I do not want to go into detail because I do not know the specifics of the situation, but we should be careful about making broad, sweeping statements. There are cases in which one could imagine cutting down even the oldest of trees to build something, even if the building were something as lowly as a supermarket. If the whole community has to travel 30 miles in polluting cars to get to a supermarket; if an extra road, which would cause further pollution, is needed so that people can get to that supermarket; and if, as part of the developer’s proposal, 100 new oak trees were to be planted, perhaps the equation does balance. Often, when we oppose a development, we pick on certain features of the case because they sound good; a lesser spotted butterfly or a very rare oak is good for PR, but that does not necessarily make for good legislation.
I share the concerns expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber about the lack of detail about expenditure in the Bill. It occurs to me that it does not make sense for the Crown to pay for all of the measures. If a supermarket is looking to build in an area, and the local authority, or indeed this House, decides that a referendum is needed, surely it is for the supermarket to pay for that referendum as part of its costs. I remind hon. Members that I do not agree with holding such referendums, but if the Bill were enacted, and referendums were required, surely it would be for the supermarket or the developer to pay for them.
On clause 9, it is a personal bugbear of mine that unitary authorities never seem to be mentioned in legislation. I represent a constituency in which there is a unitary authority, and we feel a little left out. The Minister for Local Government looks at me quizzically. I have raised the subject before, and I understand that unitary authorities are covered by the terms “county council” and “district council”, but we do feel like the poor relation. In addition, it strikes me that, simply to avoid wasting paper, it would be much more efficient if we set out a definition of local authorities in one piece of legislation, rather than having to do so in every Bill, which makes no sense whatever.
I am sure that the hon. Lady will want to reflect on clause 10, and the good points made by the hon. Member for Hendon about the two-month period and what will happen to existing applications. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) made some good suggestions, too. Perhaps we could block new sales, if the Bill were made law.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull on the Bill, but because of the number of problems with it, I will not support it in its current state. However, it has provided a great opportunity to discuss a number of important issues.
I fear that I shall be less complimentary about the Bill than some of my hon. Friends. There is nothing wrong with its principle. Indeed, I applaud it, and there is not an hon. Member who would fail to approve the principle of maintaining public open space. Conservative Members have characterised their party as one of low taxation—I would argue that it is therefore a party of poor services—and I hope that our party is one of minimal, light-touch legislation. I therefore believe that the Bill which, for the most part, is fussy and nannyish, is largely unnecessary.
I was going to confine myself to clause 3, but I shall illustrate my point with brief reference to other clauses. How widespread, for example, is the evil that clause 1 is designed to address? I applaud the wording of clause 1(1)(a), which refers to
“scattered mature or ancient trees overlying pasture or arable land”.
That is pastoral if not Arcadian language, and I compliment the hon. Member for Solihull on her drafting skills. I do not have a great deal of pastoral land in my constituency, with the exception of the area around Wormwood Scrubs, which enjoys the protection of statute and, more importantly the Army, which exercises there, but there is some open space. Because my constituency is densely populated, such space is rare, so it is even more precious than it is to the constituents of hon. Members who have large areas of open space in their constituencies. In the past 30 years, I can recall only one successful attempt to build on parkland. Inevitably, it was a Conservative council that decided for reasons that are now lost in the mists of time to construct town houses on the edge of the beautiful Victorian Ravenscourt park just outside my constituency. It was a sin and a crime, and the council were soon thrown out for that and many other offences. The case for legislation is debatable, because over the years I have discovered that popular opposition to such schemes is easily mobilised, particularly with the advent of better means of communication such as the net.
Like a number of hon. Members, I am not a fan of referendums, partly because the public are not fans, and turnout is often lamentably low. If referendums are to be part of our constitutional structure, they should be reserved for major constitutional issues, as has been the case in the past. We have held referendums on the then common market and on devolution, and we may hold one on the euro in future. A referendum on the sale of land is, however, too specialised. Unfortunately, for the first time in 20 years, there is a Conservative council in one of the boroughs in my constituency. In the past four weeks, it has decided to close one of the largest schools in the borough without proper consultation, to sack every home help and to tear up the affordable rented housing programme. All those issues are as important to my constituents as the issue raised by the hon. Lady.
Are we to have referendums on every issue that comes up locally? Is that not something that we are all familiar with the Liberal Democrats doing—changing their mind about deciding when they want to use one route and when they want to use another? Having elected a local authority, for good or ill, there are other ways to put pressure on it than constant resort to referendums, which might not have a great deal of validity, as we have seen from some voluntary referendums on raising tax levels.
Equally, in relation to clause 5 and the points made about trees, which featured a lot earlier in the debate, there are tree preservation orders as well as well-laid-down regulations and local authority powers to protect trees. I agree that those are abused—often, if not by local authorities, then by developers—but it is my submission that the remedy, again, is in process, not corrective legislation.
To come to clause 3, which is perhaps the clearest in the Bill, I fear that the hon. Member for Solihull is being led up the garden path by the Conservative party. Before the long recess, I took part in an Opposition day debate—I do not know whether she did so too—but I found that debate quite surreal. If I recall correctly, only the day before the debate was held the subject was changed from general housing policy to the narrow and specific issue of, as it is put, building on back gardens.
I found that a peculiar choice of subject for a reason that might inform and help the hon. Lady in considering whether she wants to proceed with the Bill. Contrary to what the Conservative party has said, the classification of back gardens as brownfield land originated in 1985, under a Conservative Administration. Indeed, as late as 1992, planning guidance said:
“Homes with large back gardens are a common feature in many urban, suburban and village areas. Sometimes it may be acceptable to develop back gardens for new housing which is in keeping with the character and quality of the local environment.”
Since the Labour Government were elected in 1997, development on previously residential land—that, of course, is not back gardens, but could be the footprint of a house or another property—has dropped dramatically. In 1986, the proportion of ordinary dwellings built on previously residential land stood at 26 per cent., whereas it was down to 15 per cent. in 2004. The hare has been set running, but by the people responsible for the original offence, and that offence has been largely addressed.
If the hon. Member for Solihull intends to pursue the clause, I must return to the point that I made during an intervention. There is a well tried and trusted planning process in this country, although it is not always reliable because organisations and human beings are fallible. It is largely delegated to local authority level and subject to checks—not principally at Secretary of State level, but at planning inspectorate level. Any scheme that flies in the face of what the locally elected representatives and local residents want has a poor chance of succeeding.
It is a myth that, willy-nilly, any developer or householder can make a quick buck without any reference to the planning authority. Of course, that would not be the case if the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) had his way and Conservative party policy changed to allow that untrammelled development, but only untrammelled development for post-1945 properties, because, presumably, that does not matter. I do not know how many post-1945 properties there are in some of the leafier and coastal constituencies around the country, but there are quite a lot in my constituency, such as the South Acton estate, the largest housing estate in west London, which is subject to substantial redevelopment plans. The incoming Conservative council in Ealing seems intent on pursuing a substantial intensification of density and use of that estate, including taking away much of the green land. The estate is unique in the sense that although many people live there and it is large, it has some very pleasant green areas. Those are likely to disappear if the Conservative council has its way with its development plan.
I do not hold the hon. Lady responsible for the Conservative party facing two ways. I am simply asking her to be careful. As my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) illustrated, although on the one hand the Conservatives appear to be fully in support of the Bill, on the other the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal is in favour of unrestricted planning. Presumably, to trump that, we have the proposal by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) for cities in the sea. In fairness to him, I read the report on that in the Financial Times, and although my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon correctly gave the right hon. Gentleman’s view that the country could solve its flooding and housing shortage problems by building Venice-style “cities in the sea” along the Thames estuary and the fens, according to the report
“Under the plan, sea walls and defences to protect the two new cities would be built using money raised from reclaiming and selling the underwater land to property developers.”
The right hon. Gentleman calls that a “bold vision”, which encompasses a
“‘mighty city called Thames Reach’”—
I began to get visions of Ozymandias at that point—
“being built in the water in the east Thames corridor, with up to 50,000”
homes. He stressed that
“the proposal was his own and has not been endorsed by members of his policy group…He admitted the prospect of concreting over sections of the sea would be controversial”,
which may or may not be right.
I referred to that article for two reasons. First, as a warning to the hon. Lady—although I am sure that she does not need a warning from me—to be careful with whom she shares her platform. Secondly, because there may be more roguish elements of overdevelopment to which she could turn her attention. I do not seek to associate her with the unrestricted-development wing of the Conservative party, but I fear that there is a danger not only of encumbering the statute book with overwrought legislation, but also of tarring her party with the same brush that has blotted the record of the Conservative party.
I do not want to repeat what I said in the debate before the summer recess, but when I thought about and puzzled over why, at the last moment, the Conservative party changed from a general debate on housing policy, on which there is much to be said, to a narrow debate about back gardens, I concluded that it was because of, for want of a better term, dog-whistle politics. When there is such a degree of housing need, which I am sure is as true in the hon. Lady’s constituency as it is in my own, of all types—including the intermediate market and, in particular, affordable and social rented housing—we need to consider the signal that is sent on that, whether by the Conservative party or the Liberal party. The central and crucial issue is, in fact, a non-issue, and the Labour Government have addressed the possible designation of back gardens as brownfield sites. If we say, however wrongly, that that is the key issue in housing policy, what that says to me and my constituents who are living in overcrowded conditions, who are on housing waiting lists or who cannot get their first foot on the property ladder is: we do not want to build; we want to stop building, wherever possible.
I am not saying that that was the hon. Lady’s intention in drafting the Bill or that particular clause, but I highlight the danger of her and her party becoming tarred with the same brush—one of accelerated nimby-ism and a callous disregard for those who are in housing need. I acknowledge that that is not the hon. Lady’s intention and I applaud the principle of the Bill, but I believe that we do not need it.
We have had an interesting and worthwhile debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) on introducing a Bill on an important issue. I come largely to praise the Bill, not to bury it, but I have a few concerns about the detail. I am happy to support the Bill on the ground that, if it were introduced, even in its present state, it would leave us in a better position than we are in now. I would like to improve it in Committee, but we should not lose sight of the Bill’s considerable merit in moving us in the right direction. We should support the Bill’s general thrust.
I, too, have many concerns about referendums. My main criticism of the Bill would be that it seeks at all levels to bypass the local authority. In some ways, a referendum would bypass the local authority and in others we would still end up with central Government control over the planning system. I would rather see us move in the direction of giving much more responsibility to local authorities for planning matters in their areas rather than relying on either a referendum or on central Government control over planning. That is my main criticism, but the Bill still moves us in a better direction.
I genuinely believe in local democracy. I believe in localism and I am delighted that the Conservative party under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is moving in that direction. I support it wholeheartedly. If we really believe in localism, local democracy is what we should support. There is no more emotive issue for local authorities to discuss and decide than planning. It raises people’s hackles and it is the issue that most people living in a local area are concerned about. If local democracy and local councils are to mean anything, we must give those councils responsibility over local planning decisions.
Local council elections are a key feature of local democracy, but if we take planning issues away from councils and put them to a referendum, we will get even lower turnouts than in many local elections. I prefer decisions on planning to be taken mainly by the local authority, and in particular in respect of residential developments, by local authorities alone. I do not accept that central Government or a planning inspector from Bristol can know better than the local democratically elected council what is best for a local area. I thus prefer moving away from the idea of referendums towards giving local authorities the responsibility for taking decisions.
I hasten to add that I am not against referendums per se and there are sometimes circumstances in which a referendum is appropriate, as the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) said. On issues of constitutional importance, referendums are very important. I greatly favour a referendum on our continuing membership of the European Union. I suspect that it may be a while before we get one, but referendums should be confined to such issues of national importance rather than being conducted willy-nilly for every planning application. Once we start down the track of holding local referendums for some planning applications, there will be a clamour to extend the process to all of them. The whole system could get out of hand.
I completely disagree with the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush about developments in gardens. He tried to blame the problems on laws that date back to the mid-1980s when the issue was not a problem. I wish that Labour Members would look to the future rather than the past, and deal with current issues rather than blaming everything on previous Governments, which gets us nowhere. We are where we are in terms of planning—[Interruption.]
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I notice that the Minister was asking the hon. Gentleman to intervene on his behalf.
It was my hon. Friend’s point.
I shall be interested to hear what the Minister wanted said by proxy.
Although I have known my hon. Friend the Minister for many years, I cannot read his mind. I think his comment to me, rather than asking for an intervention, was probably not repeatable. In fact, I wanted to repeat a point that I have already made, but which the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) may have missed. The number of new dwellings on previously residential land, which includes gardens, as a proportion of all new dwellings is lower than in the late 1980s. The figures I gave were 26 per cent. in 1986 and 15 per cent. in 2004. I agree that we should not go over history, except when it is appropriate as it is in this case.
I am grateful to the Minister for his intervention by proxy. I am in this place to represent my constituency of Shipley, where building in gardens has become an issue only in the last few years; it was not a problem back in the 1980s, nor even in the 1990s. Our responsibility is to deal with the issues that arise now, not those from the past.
Because there is such a wide definition of what constitutes building on previously residential land, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we cannot know what proportion of such land relates to back gardens? It is therefore difficult to work out whether the phenomenon is recent, although I agree that it has happened only recently in my constituency.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady and endorse what she says. As many Members know, building on gardens is a recent, not a long-standing, problem. Such garden developments are a blight on many villages: not only do they overlook people’s property, they change the nature of villages in which people have lived for many years. Few people would think of a nice green stretch of garden as a brownfield site. For people in the country, a brownfield site would be land that was derelict or had been used industrially.
It is essential that the Government do something about the problem and I wholeheartedly endorse the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) to deal with it. At the time, the Government said that they would draw up their own proposals, so I hope that the Minister will enlighten us about how they plan to deal with the problem.
The point that the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush did not make is that many Labour Members signed my hon. Friend’s early-day motion on the subject, yet when there was an Opposition debate on a motion with exactly the same wording, they voted against it. Labour Members should have realised that they were voting against what they had signed; some of them certainly showed a degree of inconsistency.
In the villages of Baildon and Eldwick in my constituency in particular, the building of houses on gardens is a disturbing, major trend that is blighting large parts of those villages and others. I know that the local residents in Eldwick and Baildon in particular expect action. If the Government will not support this Bill or that introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells, I urge them to do something to curb this blight on many of our communities, because it is a big problem.
I would much prefer that such issues were decided by the local council, free from the threat of being taken to a planning inspector or the Secretary of State. One big disadvantage of our system generally is that local authorities often do not make the decision that they want to make but make a decision with the threat of an appeal to a planning inspector permanently hanging over them. They often approve planning applications unwillingly because they feel that they have no choice because of all the centralised planning guidance and the threat of the huge cost of an appeal hanging over them. I would much prefer that, particularly on residential developments, local authorities were given the freedom to make such decisions on the basis of what was best for their local area rather than according to the reams of planning guidance handed down to them, along with the threat of an appeal. I find some aspects of the Bill worrying, because in many respects that threat of appeal would still be hanging over them.
I am delighted to hear what the hon. Gentleman says about removing regulation. Does he then agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) said that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has proposed, which is the abolition of the need for planning consents on properties built after 1945?
My point relates to appeals. As I think I have made clear, I want a proper process for the local authority to be the body responsible for deciding planning matters in a local area. At the moment, local authorities are blighted by the threat of a planning inspector and the Secretary of State overturning that decision. Residential developments in many constituencies are happening not necessarily because the local public want them, and not even because the local planning authority wants them, but because of all the planning guidance that comes down from central Government and the threat of an inspector and an appeal. That is the part of the planning process that I should like to tackle and I would much prefer the Bill to be far more robust in tackling the problem of central Government control over local planning decisions.
Obviously, there needs to be some central control over planning issues such as prisons, and perhaps the building of nuclear power stations, for which a local authority may never want to give planning permission, but I would much prefer to see local authorities given far more power to make decisions on residential developments for themselves, and far less central Government interference and far less of a threat from a planning inspector.
Getting back to the gardens issue, if local authorities were given the freedom to decide these things for themselves without Government guidance and the threat of an appeal hanging over them, they would be much more likely to turn down applications for houses to be built in gardens than they are at the moment because of the current planning laws. As somebody who strongly believes in localism, that must mean giving local authorities, and even parish councils, much more say over planning matters in their locality. They surely must know best what is right for their area—certainly better than the Secretary of State or a planning inspector.
I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) about trees. The issue raised by the hon. Member for Solihull is clearly an important local one, but I would not want us to start legislating simply on the basis of one local issue in one constituency. When we are setting the laws of the land, we need to look at a wider picture than that. The issue of gardens affects almost every constituency; some of the other issues may be more parochial. I am sure they are important in Solihull, but they may be less important elsewhere.
I welcome the thrust of the Bill. It takes us in the right direction, although I have some concerns about the detail, as I have outlined. I hope the Government will support the Bill, but if not, I hope they will introduce proposals to give local authorities more powers and local residents more control over what goes on in their locality. We must get rid of the nanny state mentality whereby the Government want to interfere in every aspect of everyone’s life and every aspect of every local decision. They should give up some of their power and control, and trust local councils and local people to make the right decision for their area.
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) on her success in introducing the Bill. I also congratulate its drafters, who have allowed us to hold such a wide-ranging debate on so many subjects that give rise to some controversy. Every contributor has disagreed with practically every other on the detail, if not the principle, of all the subjects discussed. That shows that Fridays are useful for stretching the brain, if nothing else.
I thank my hon. Friends who contributed to the debate. The wide range of points on referendums adds substance to my earlier comment about the wide range of ideas expressed. If the Bill proceeds, all these matters will doubtless be covered in greater detail. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) made a key point when he said that the Bill was an object lesson demonstrating how legislation should not be drafted to generalise from a particular case in the hon. Lady’s constituency. I do not know the details, other than what she told us. One can sympathise with the difficulty that she faces, but one is left with various questions that I hope she will be able to answer when she sums up.
For example, have the local authority or the developers provided any other open and amenable space to replace that which may disappear? Without being too party political, perhaps I could ask the hon. Lady to tell us whether and at what stage in the saga—I assume it is a saga—the Liberal Democrats supported or made no comment on the proposal, or whether it is merely a bandwagon that she has been able to use in recent months. It would be helpful to have that information.
I promise not to take as much time as some other seasoned Friday contributors, for which everybody will be enormously grateful. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who is clearly working hard to take over from my sadly missed colleague, Eric Forth. Almost all the contributions on clause 1 dealing with the sale of parkland indicated the scale of the opposition that there could be, unless the hon. Lady was able to amend the Bill so significantly that the result would be a totally different provision on the sale of parkland by any public or even private body.
We have talked at great length about the pleasures and difficulties of local referendums. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) pointed out that many local authorities—including my own—already hold the equivalent of referendums when they wish to gauge local people’s views on issues such as parking schemes. Inevitably, 50 per cent. are for and 50 per cent. are against, so it comes back to the local authority making a decision, as they are elected to do. Leaving aside the costs and other technicalities, I am not sure that we would be much further forward if we were to have such referendums.
My husband is the leader of East Sussex county council, which recently had a parish referendum on whether a village should remain part of the parish. The residents of the village voted to leave the parish, and the rest of the parish voted for the village to remain. That left the matter no further forward and indicates some of the difficulties with local referendums.
I was taken aback by clause 2 on parkland associations, because in my constituency and the wider London borough of Bromley there are many local people who are friends of the parks. They attract much support and do much good work, encouraged by the council. The clause is redundant, because there is nothing to stop concerned people setting up parkland associations. I cannot believe that a local authority would be anything other than delighted, because many parkland associations do the work that local councils cannot do because of the miserly Government settlement.
Like many of my hon. Friends, I support in principle what the hon. Lady is trying to achieve in clause 3, and I was a sponsor of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), which would have dealt with the issue much more effectively. At least we have had a chance to debate the hon. Lady’s Bill.
The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) tried to blame the Conservatives for the problems with garden grabbing, but he condemned the Government’s actions from his own lips when he cited the planning guidance that we introduced in the 1980s on developments “in character”. Those of us who were involved in politics at that time, although not necessarily as Members of Parliament, will remember that the thinking behind that was to allow elderly people living in big family houses to build a house in the garden, in keeping with the rest of the property. We have tiptoed round the difficulty that has emerged since this Government promulgated the view that there should be greater density of housing. That gave developers the green light to apply to build blocks of 48 flats in back gardens. It is that policy of increasing density, not the development of back gardens as such or our original planning guidance, that is at fault. About two years ago, I had the privilege of raising that issue in an Adjournment debate, when I pointed out—and the Minister cheerfully agreed—that in my constituency the Government wished to increase density from 30 houses an acre to 50. That would, of course, completely change the nature of my constituency, by turning it into an area of inner-city density. People do not live in the outer suburbs of London because they wish to live in the inner city. If they wished to live in the inner city, they would move to the inner city.
That is the underlying pressure that is causing the problem that is reported in this afternoon’s Evening Standard. The headline reads:
“Up to 60 per cent. of new homes are built in gardens”,
and the article begins by stating:
“London’s precious green space is under increasing threat from developers building on domestic gardens”.
It states that 62 per cent. of new homes in Croydon are built on previously developed land, and that the figure for Islington is 60 per cent. and for Bromley, my borough, it is 46 per cent. That highlights the pressure that there is, and why our constituents are so concerned. Throughout England and Wales, there is revulsion about blocks of flats inappropriately being built in back gardens.
I have huge sympathy with clause 4 on the right to appeal against grants of planning permission, because the developers go on and on and on, until, through attrition, the local residents die from frustration if not old age. However, like so much else of the Bill, the clause needs to be much better thought through to ensure that a balance is maintained so that some development can go ahead, because Members in all parts of the House agree that there is a need for more housing. A blanket provision such as this would not create the best balance in the planning system.
On the guidance on protection of trees, I do not think that any one—including the Conservative party, with its brave new logo—would be against the idea of ensuring that venerable trees are saved as much as possible. It is part of the negotiation that a good planning department will have with a developer that trees should be retained where they have some value. However, the proposal of the hon. Member for Solihull would be yet another expense to the taxpayer, because part of the reason why local authorities cannot give as much protection to trees as they might like is that it costs money, and there is a taxpayers’ revolt against council tax––indeed, against paying any more tax, given how highly taxed the country now is.
I do not wish to say anything more, which will allow the Minister and the hon. Member for Solihull time to respond. We broadly agree with the drift of the Bill, but, in common with every Member who has spoken, we have serious reservations about how effectively it would deal with the problem that the hon. Lady highlights.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) on achieving this debate on her Bill on the Floor of the House, especially as she has only recently become a Member. I had huge differences with her predecessor, but he too was a champion for her constituents, and I am glad to see that he has been succeeded by another such Member.
The debate has been good, important and timely. It airs issues that are being debated around the country. It is such a shame that the British media choose not to report what is of interest to the public; if they did, perhaps they would find their sales going up rather than down.
We have had some very good contributions from all parts of the House, in a genuine debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller)—he has offered his apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker, for having to leave early on constituency business—spoke comprehensively. He discussed his own constituency and office, and asked whether buildings within designated parks and open spaces would be included in the guidelines. The answer is that where such buildings are associated with the sporting or recreational use of the open space, they would be covered, and where they are not, they would not. In lay person’s language, that means that an outbuilding used for lawnmowers and suchlike, or a tea room that is part of the recreational facilities, would be included as part of the park. However, a house that is completely separate from the park land—and, indeed, from my hon. Friend’s office—would not be covered. I am not sure whether that was the answer that he wanted regarding the implications for his office, but it does at least confirm that he was right in his assumption.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) spoke comprehensively and with great knowledge. He pointed out that in his view, the Bill faces two ways: it tries to empower, but it also tries to impose. He had some strong criticisms of the policy proposals from the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), which I will come to in a moment. My hon. Friend gave the example of cemeteries that are owned by Westminster council, but are in the borough of Barnet, pointing out the potential difficulty, therefore, in knowing whom to approach. I can also envisage circumstances in which a park is within one borough but its users are mainly from another borough or area. That of course raises the age-old problem of how far one devolves such powers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon also made some pertinent points about the Standards Board for England. If you will allow me within the remit of this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker—he raised the issue, not me—I shall point out that I intend to publish the new draft code of practice in the next few weeks and to comment further on the board’s modus operandi following my speech to its annual conference in Birmingham this Monday. Go to www.dclg/philwoolas/speeches.co.uk—or something like that.
Required reading by me, yes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) spoke well and gave principled and practical reasons why he thought the Bill was, in his words, unnecessary. He did the House a service by pointing out that although it is right not to live in the past, it is useful to draw lessons from the past where relevant. It is the case that, as a proportion of new houses, more houses were built in gardens in the 1980s than are built in gardens now. That is a fact, and facts are stubborn things.
The question was asked whether the Bill complies with the Human Rights Act 1998. I take guidance from you on these matters, Madam Deputy Speaker. The rules of the House are that Government Bills must get the certificate, as it were, prior to coming before the House. Of course, private Members’ Bills are open to examination by the relevant Committee. Common sense dictates that as a private Member’s Bill progresses through the House, that would have to be considered. When I voted for the Human Rights Act, however, I was more worried about Nazi persecution than about some of the matters that are assigned to the Act in public debate. I think that I best not go further into that subject.
How could I neglect to mention the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who made a thoughtful speech? As hon. Members will know, his constituency is one of the most beautiful in the country, so he is familiar with preservation of green spaces, parks and so on. He raised some interesting points from a non-partisan angle.
The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) spoke well and with knowledge. He made the important point that a scout hut or some other such public amenity being built in a park would have to be considered in a completely different category from, say, an Asda supermarket. That point reflects the difficulties of drawing the boundaries, whether in law or planning guidance. Were there to be a referendum in his constituency on whether the council should be allowed to grant planning application for a scout hut, my guess is that the turnout would be low and that the result would be an overwhelming yes. He also drew our attention to the potential paradoxes or dilemmas relating to local authorities making planning applications for their own buildings. He indicated that he thought that his civic building was not exactly one for the world heritage list. I invite him to the north-west of England to see our beautiful Victorian buildings. He does, however, make a good point.
The hon. Gentleman also made a plea for the unitaries not to be forgotten. It is important to note that the designated title of unitary council does not include all those that in common language are described as unitaries, such as metropolitan boroughs. As the Minister for Local Government, I am well aware of that category of councils properly called unitaries. I have a little reminder in my notebook not to forget them. How could I, given their prominence and importance in our public life? I therefore genuinely thank him for his thoughtful comments.
The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) spoke well too, and posed some dilemmas to the House. He said—I think I quote him accurately—that “local people know best” for their area, and that there was a case for parishes having planning powers. Parishes, of course, are statutory consultees but have no powers. One could make a case for localised decisions at parish level. However, as was said by one of Oldham’s Conservative councillors—we still have one or two, or one, I think, at the moment—with regard to Liberal Democrat policies for my area, we all know that Liberal Democrats have a policy for every street but none for the borough. That is the problem with localism taken too far. Were planning left entirely to local authorities, I doubt whether the United Kingdom would ever have had an airport, a railway or any other parts of our infrastructure.
I tried to make clear that I was referring to residential developments in particular. I recognised that other matters require some kind of central control. I agree with my colleague in Oldham about the Liberal Democrats’ policies, but in planning matters, surely what is right for one area may not be right for another, and what is right for one part of the district may not be right for another part of that district. With planning, surely localism is a good thing.
Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument, and to be fair, I must admit that he did mention residential planning in his speech. However, his comments prompt a question to which I shall return later, and which is also relevant to what was said by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait).
If residential planning were to be restricted to local authority areas, I do not see how a case could be put for housing development that would meet the demands of the country. In both regions and sub-regions, it would be necessary to find some measure of inter-local authority understanding and agreement; otherwise chaos would ensue.
When recommending more housing and planning powers for regional assemblies and the Mayor of London, the Minister should perhaps take account of the informal arrangements that are developing among local authorities to enable them to control the agenda rather than accepting it from central Government.
I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but there is a contradiction at the heart of it. She criticises the regional assembly as she sees it, and then refers to national impositions. She cannot have it both ways.
The Leader of the Opposition recently delivered some heavy criticism of the Government’s policy on housing and the provision of new homes. He said:
“the failure to provide an adequate number of new homes in Britain has contributed to the affordability problem…This situation is bananas.”
He went on to say:
“We must be on the side of the next generation...and that means building more houses and flats for young people."
The shadow Chancellor has said:
“We also need to increase the supply of new homes.”
It seems to be that there is one message on one platform, and another message on the other platform. You cannot have your cake and eat it.
I do not wish to turn this into a dialogue, but I do not think that the two are at all contradictory. If the central Government diktats on housing density were removed, local people would be quite responsible enough, and sufficiently involved in their own areas, to make their own decisions. They do not need the decisions to be made by central Government. Local authorities are capable of providing housing for their own people.
I am confident that when the Deputy Prime Minister announced the new policy on increasing density—
Order. I have allowed some leeway, but the Bill does not cover housing density to this extent.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Perhaps I can make my point in commenting on specific clauses in the Bill, as this is directly relevant to them.
I was responding to the remarks of the hon. Member for Shipley, who said that there should not be reams of bureaucracy coming down from Whitehall.
I think we can all sign up to that. [Hon. Members: “Can we quote you?”] Hon. Members can more than quote me, as I have said it before.
The hon. Gentleman said that these matters should be left to the local authority. That, of course, is precisely the point made by the hon. Member for Solihull. She does not want to leave the sale of parkland in her borough to the local authority; as she explained so eloquently in her speech, she wants to do the opposite, and take power away from the authority. The hon. Member for Shipley says that he wants to devolve power to local authorities. The message seems to be, “We’ll devolve power as long as we agree with the decisions that are then taken.” I therefore take it that if Bradford metropolitan borough—for that fine city covers his constituency—decided that it was happy for every garden in the borough of Bradford to have a house built in the back yard, and perhaps some flats as well, he would not oppose that because he would see it is as being a sensible decision by a Conservative-led council.
I believe in local democracy. If a local authority were to decide that, it would face the consequences at the following local elections. Bradford council is, fortunately, led by a Conservative administration that would not make such a stupid decision, and would be more likely to turn down such proposals. I would certainly prefer a local authority to make the decisions as to how many houses should be built in the local area rather than the unelected, unaccountable regional assembly that dictates how many have to be built in Bradford.
I will ensure that the Conservative association in Solihull has a copy of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. He said that if electors do not like an administration’s policies, they can change it at the next election. The logical implication is that he profoundly disagrees with what is being done in Solihull and is calling on its electors to change their administration at the next election. Does that not mean that he is calling for a Labour vote in Solihull? I shall leave that question hanging in the air.
The Government are sympathetic towards some aspects of the Bill. Its intention—I think that there is consensus in the House on this—is to give people locally more control over their neighbourhood and more of a say in how it is run. The Government are committed to ensuring that all communities have access to good quality green space, parks and open land. However, it will be no surprise that we do not think that this Bill is the right way to go about achieving those aims. Accordingly, we cannot support it.
Before I explain the reasons for that, it is worth considering the context in which we discuss the Bill. Parks and open spaces are much more dynamic and flexible in supporting community life and cohesion than they have been for some time. Our research shows, not surprisingly, that 91 per cent. of people say that they improve their quality of life. I commend to the House a recent production of the BBC programme “Gardeners’ World”, which examined in some depth the improvement—its word, not mine—that has taken place in parks and gardens as a result of the policies that the Government have adopted.
As Members of Parliament, we all share the idea that our parks and open spaces have a glorious tradition and heritage. I personally believe that we forgot their importance and value towards the end of the last century. One of the most damaging aspects of imposing the policy of compulsory competitive tendering on local councils was its impact on our parks. I never disagreed with the competitive tendering part; it was the compulsory element that was damaging. In relation to parks, it made people consider the price, not the quality. As a result of that policy, people could cut the grass without tending the flowers or painting the railings, and they could keep the gates locked all day. We have successfully turned the policy round, and made good progress.
The Public Accounts Committee acknowledged that
“initiatives by central Government have helped stop the decline of urban green spaces in many parts of England.”
That follows a continuing commitment, which acknowledges the value of good-quality parks and open spaces, and has tried to understand the causes of their decline by establishing the urban green spaces taskforce.
In 2003 my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister launched a sustainable communities plan that set out a new vision, which put communities at the heart of development. In that important speech, he gave parks, gardens and open spaces a central role. Through the plan, we have implemented a range of initiatives and brought new funding to the programme. That halted the decline of the green spaces and started to improve them, and has been a key factor in making our towns and cities better places to live. The recent “State of the Cities” report acknowledged that.
However, I am not complacent. We need to ensure that every community benefits from good-quality green spaces, and we therefore remain committed to following through our green spaces programme. We will respond to the Public Accounts Committee’s report in full in due course.
One of the great gifts of a park, whatever its nature, is that it extends its welcome to everyone, irrespective of who they are. We have all benefited from parks and we all understand their importance. I hope that in our debate, we will consider the full range of urban green spaces that planning policy guidance note 17 sets out. Several hon. Members have referred to that important document. It constitutes planning for open space, sport and recreation rather than some undefined notion of “parkland”. It recognises that different spaces have different functions. Although parks and open spaces lend themselves as subjects for community involvement and decisions at neighbourhood level, that should not be a replacement for council involvement.
As the hon. Member for Solihull said, many of the excellent parks groups were formed in the 1990s in response to the crisis that faced parks and open spaces. There are also the successfully established friends of parks groups, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon mentioned. They have made a big difference to the management of parks and improving what they can do. Although some groups go on to manage parks—I am sure that we all support local people taking over the running of a park—others have a consultative and advisory role. The green flag award scheme, which we support, backs that up and provides standards to which our parks and open spaces can aspire. In England, 409 green spaces hold the green flag award, and the number increases every year—a great achievement by our parks managers throughout the country, as the BBC programme, which featured the beautiful Alexandra park in the borough of Oldham, exemplified superbly.
There is also the green pennant award, which recognises community management and achievement. Those awards help to promote innovative ways in which to involve local communities in the design and management of public spaces.
In the past five years, a tremendous turnaround has taken place in the fortunes of parks in England. They are generally getting better. Local people recognise that and use them more. In many parts of our country, they are one of the—unfortunately few—areas where different groups of people meet and mix. That is welcome. All that is largely due to the commitment, investment and effort of central and local government, the professionals who work in the parks and their employees, who often dedicate their lives to nurturing their parks. We can all see the pride that they take in them.
I now turn to what we believe to be wrong with the implications—not the intentions—of the Bill. Clause 1 seeks to restrict the sale of parkland or other types of open space owned by local authorities. It would require a local authority to hold a referendum before making such a sale, which would depend on the outcome of the referendum. Under the Local Government Act 1972, local authorities may dispose of land in any manner they wish, but if they want to dispose of land that is used for public recreation or as a public garden, they must advertise their intentions in a local newspaper and consider any objections. Many hon. Members would probably say that that was welcome but insufficient, in terms of the input from local people.
That is why additional Government planning policies already provide robust protection for the open spaces that local communities need. These policies are set out in planning policy guidance note 17, introduced in 2002, which covers open space, sport and recreation. It states that existing open spaces and sports and recreational land should not be built on unless an assessment has been undertaken by the local authority that has clearly shown the open space or land to be surplus to the requirements of the local community. In undertaking that assessment, the local authority must take into account all the functions that that open space can perform. So the provisions in the Local Government Act 1972, together with the protection for open spaces provided by planning policies, are sufficient to ensure that the parkland that local communities need is not sold without account being taken of the needs and views of local people.
It might be helpful if I also mention the situation in relation to sports and recreation grounds owned by schools, because there is a different regime in place for them. I shall explain the background to this for the benefit of the House, because it is directly relevant to the debate. School playing fields are afforded particular protection by section 77 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which empowers the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to protect school playing fields from disposal or change of use.
Local authorities require the prior consent of the Secretary of State before they can sell school playing fields, and I shall explain the context in which that is allowed. They would have to demonstrate that such sports facilities were surplus to the needs of the local community, which is a very hard test indeed. Furthermore, all proceeds from any such sale must be spent on new sports and educational facilities. That Act was backed up by further guidance in November 2004, which states that the sale of playing fields must be a last resort, if its purpose is to raise funds to improve other sports and educational facilities, and that the school must seek alternatives sources of funding.
The accusation that is sometimes made that the number of sports fields and facilities in our schools has gone down is therefore unfair, because it does not take into account the net position. Those tough criteria applied to schools, through the requirement to show that there is a surplus of facilities in the community, apply also—through planning policy guidance note 17 —to public parks and open spaces.
Clause 2 would give local authorities a new power to establish parkland associations, and it would require those authorities to ensure that such associations were representative of the local community. As the hon. Member for Solihull explained, the clause would also allow the Secretary of State to make regulations about parkland associations. Although we want to encourage community engagement, creating a new, specific regulatory structure for parks is neither necessary nor desirable, and I shall try to persuade hon. Members of that.
It is not necessary to give local authorities new powers to create parkland associations, because in many areas local authorities and communities are already implementing such arrangements—for example, through the creation of trusts and through the “friends of” groups that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and I mentioned. Furthermore, I am not sure that it is clear from the Bill how the creation of parkland associations would give parklands more protection from development pressures—and increased protection is, of course, the main intention behind the Bill.
The Bill does not suggest to whom such associations would be accountable, and it does not make clear whether they could represent and protect the interests of the local community better than the elected council. Requiring local communities to manage all council green space would impose a financial and resource burden that many communities may not have the capacity to handle. That would, in turn, threaten the renaissance of parks and green spaces. The proposal goes against the idea of giving local authorities greater flexibility to act as leaders in carrying out such strategies in their communities, and it goes against the idea of working in partnership with other bodies and community organisations. In short, although the provision is well intended, I fear that it could impose another layer of bureaucracy.
Proposals for community management of urban green spaces should instead continue to be considered and developed as part of a wider strategy on neighbourhood and citizen engagement. I hope that that encourages the hon. Member for Solihull. I can tell her that her Bill has influenced policy development on the matter, as her suggestions made a great deal of sense. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, as it then was, worked in partnership with the Home Office to establish the community and management work group, which involves experts from the voluntary and community sector. It has commissioned research on the benefits of community ownership and/or management of local assets. In addition, it has considered: the scope of current community ownership and management of physical assets; the legal and financial parameters; the costs and risks involved; and the resultant funding and capacity-building needs and provision. The work group published two reports on the topic earlier this year. One was entitled “Communities Taking Control”, and the other was called “Community Assets—the benefits and costs of community management and ownership.”
In my experience, Members of Parliament of all parties and none understand the desirability of community ownership and management of assets, but they also understand the dangers and risks that can be involved in it, as issues of propriety and ensuring fairness across communities must be dealt with.
The valuable initiative to which the Minister refers is, presumably, helpful not only in the case of parks, but in the case of museums, too. In my constituency, the Conservative-controlled borough council wants to close the borough museum, but community initiatives such as those that he describes might be an avenue that we can take in order to save the museum, just as they might be used to save a park.
Indeed, that is the intention. I have some more, even better, news for the right hon. Gentleman: in September this year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced a community ownership and management review, to consider how we can take such issues forward in practice. The review is headed by one of our country’s most senior and respected chief executives, Mr. Barry Quirk of the London borough of Lewisham. That group will work closely with the Office of the Third Sector, within the Cabinet Office, and it will report in spring, or after Christmas, with an action plan setting out workable proposals for implementation. It looks at assets across the piece. I cannot give any commitments, as I am not familiar with the museum in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but knowing his part of the world, the measure probably offers a nice fit. In case there is mischievous reporting—I suspect, however, that journalists are probably in another building for Friday lunchtime—that does not mean that the Government propose to remove assets from local councils.
The review will take as its starting point the two working group reports to which I referred, and existing powers and policies that facilitate the transfer of the ownership or management of local public assets to community groups. It will consider how those powers can be better used, what unnecessary barriers remain and whether further powers and policy changes are required to overcome them. The review offers an opportunity to share existing good practice in the field of regeneration, and it underlines our commitment both to community-led regeneration and to joined-up work between community groups and local authorities—it is wrong to think that there is conflict between the two. The outcomes of the review will feed into the 2007 comprehensive spending review, so it is a win-win situation for public bodies and the community sector; both will benefit from our approach.
There is even more good news, as the Government-funded public space champion—CABE Space—recently published research on a range of management and funding models for urban green space, including trusts and partnerships with the voluntary and community sector. My Department will review those findings and consider what more needs to be done to support communities and local authorities in managing their spaces. A broad and deep strategy is therefore in place, and it points in the direction of travel sought by the hon. Member for Solihull. I hope that that will be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
Clause 3 would require the Secretary of State to issue guidance to local planning authorities to the effect that the gardens of private houses should be regarded for development control purposes as greenfield sites, and that applications for planning permission for significant developments in such locations should normally be refused. The hon. Lady and other hon. Members have bemoaned the use of back gardens for housing development. I am familiar with the issue, having grappled with it in my constituency. I shall be non-partisan in setting out the background, as it is important that we base our debate on facts. The classification of gardens as brownfield sites is not new. Residential land is classified as a developed land use, and the classification covers all the land associated with a house or flat, including any garden. The same applies to industrial land, where the classification covers all the land associated with a factory or industrial premises, including any landscaped areas. Those classifications have been used for land use change statistics—LUCS—since 1985.
Current policy appears in planning policy guidance note 3 and in draft planning policy statement 3, on which the hon. Member for Shipley asked me to comment and which, when finalised, will replace PPG3. The policy defines previously developed land, which is referred to more loosely as brownfield land, on a basis consistent with the long-established definition in LUCS. The principle that gardens are brownfield is therefore not new. Hon. Members have pointed to the impact of planning guidance on back gardens. Planning policy guidance states:
“Homes with large back gardens are a common feature in many urban, suburban and village areas. So it has long been acknowledged that sometimes it may be acceptable”—
I emphasise the word, “may”—
“to develop back gardens for new housing which is in keeping with the character and quality of the local environment”.
The hon. Member for Beckenham and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush referred to that, so it is worth concentrating on the fact that there is agreement across the House, and probably between the parties, on the wisdom of that statement, which was made some time ago.
That quotation is not from the present guidance, but from that introduced in 1992, so it has long been acknowledged that sometimes it may be acceptable to develop back gardens for new housing, where it is in keeping with the character and quality of the local environment. It was helpful of the hon. Member for Beckenham to enlighten the House as to the intention of the policy at the time, which she said was to do with pressure in relation to particular housing—to build extensions and so on, I assume.
The current PPG3, introduced in 2000, stated that there should be a clear priority for brownfield development over greenfield. At the time, that statement was welcomed by all, and I hope and expect that it is still a policy that is welcomed by all. However, it also included safeguards for quality and said that
“considerations of design and layout must be informed by the wider context, having regard not just to any immediate neighbouring buildings but the townscape and landscape of the wider locality.”
“Local planning authorities should reject poor design particularly where their decisions are supported by clear plan policies.”
I reiterate the point that the interplay of that guidance and the Government’s desire to increase housing density has put the pressure on. If I might say so, also involved is the loose wording of the planning guidance, which allows developers to produce blocks of one and two-bedroom flats that, for instance, are at the same tree level and have a pitched roof, and that can be said to be sort of in character because the other houses round about have pitched roofs. The problem is that a house for a family is replaced by one and two-bedroom flats. That is the cause of the pressure.
I thank the hon. Lady for explaining why this is such a hot issue. I understand that, and I have constituents who have said it to me, but if she will allow me to finish my argument we might have a better understanding of the situation.
The Government’s intention, when they publish the final PPS3 later this year, is that the new policy will strengthen the emphasis in current policy on the quality and design of buildings and their neighbouring environment, and reinforce the need for all development to be in suitable locations.
Selective small-scale redevelopment of houses and back gardens, carefully planned, can contribute—I emphasise, can contribute—to achieving a better housing mix and help to meet housing needs, so long as the new development, for example, complements the neighbouring and wider locality in terms of nature and scale, is suitable, and is of good-quality design. However, that does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that all back gardens are suitable for development. Defining a garden as brownfield does not bring with it in planning policy a presumption that the garden should be developed.
As well as local planning authorities being able to turn down inappropriate back garden development because it is of poor design or inappropriate to the local area, a wide range of other matters need to be considered in deciding whether to allocate land for housing and whether to grant planning approvals. The range of matters includes the location and accessibility of the sites and the capacity of existing and potential infrastructure—a point made by many hon. Members many times. That includes social infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, which residents often raise with us.
We also need to be clear about the facts. It is certainly true that the Government have increased the emphasis on the use of brownfield land. Environment groups and Members of Parliament on both sides of the House welcomed that policy. It clearly makes sense to develop on brownfield sites instead of greenfield sites. We believe—there is strong evidence for this—that as a result of those policies, in part, there has been a renaissance in our towns and cities, with the regeneration of many abandoned industrial sites and a substantial reduction in the amount of greenfield land needed for development.
According to the urban taskforce, 90 people lived in Manchester city centre in 1990. That figure today is 25,000. That is a direct and indirect result of planning policy changes. There are other examples, and I am sorry if I am being Mancunian-selfish. I should, of course, talk about Britain’s third city, Birmingham, where a similar story could be described. [Interruption.] I move quickly on as the Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Steve McCabe), heard what I said.
I want to draw attention to the serious fact mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush. I do so not just to show the historical importance of the figures, but to ensure that the debate is informed. The proportion of homes built on greenfield land has fallen from 44 per cent. in 1997 to 26 per cent. today. That is linked to what the hon. Member for Beckenham said about density and increasing the density of population in non-greenfield areas.
For the benefit of the House, let me emphasise that the pressure on housing development is almost entirely due to demographic changes rather than population changes. The policies of the Conservative party are contradictory. On the one hand, at a macro level, it recognises the need for housing supply based on demographic changes such as people living longer, higher levels of divorce and people getting married later in life. Those pressures are real, and at a macro level the Conservatives seem to welcome the need to increase housing, just as the Conservative Governments of 1955 and the early 1960s did. However, when it comes to the rub, they object to it at a local level.
In the Minister’s list of things that are causing pressures on housing, such as divorce and demographics, he missed out immigration. I am sure that that was a casual slip. In an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) a while ago, the Government said, if I remember rightly, that virtually a third of all new housing was going to be required because of immigration. Perhaps they should tackle the problem of all this legal and illegal immigration, because then we would not need all these houses—
Order. A significant matter it might be, but the matter before us is one of housing and parkland spaces.
We seem to have gone from a beautiful oak tree, which we all wish to protect, to perhaps the most contentious subject of debate in the House. The evidence does not back up the hon. Gentleman’s point in respect of pressure on housing. It is the wheres, whens and hows of that pressure that informed the policy that we pursue, although I understand his point.
Let me put on record another important set of statistics in order to set the debate into context. The proportion of homes built on previously residential land is lower now than it was in the 1980s. In 1990, for example, 20 per cent. of homes were built on land that was previously residential. The proportion in 2005 was 16 per cent.—a figure that includes homes built on the footprint of previous buildings and which is not confined to homes built on drives or back gardens.
Can the Minister reconcile those figures with the ones just published about the percentage of gardens built on in various London boroughs, which I mentioned in my earlier remarks?
The hon. Lady is trying to hold me and the Government responsible for the decisions of local authorities. There are many examples of local authorities turning down proposals to develop gardens on the basis of existing planning guidance, let alone the future planning guidance to which I referred.
The Government believe that more homes need to be built to meet the needs of future generations. National planning policy in PPS3 sets a framework for regional and local planning, but it is very much the role of local planning authorities to decide the approach and strategy for the location of housing development in their particular areas. The issue should not be about blocking whole categories of development as either greenfield or brownfield, but about quality and appropriateness. In the end, new homes need to be built somewhere and local authorities need to take sensible decisions about the most suitable location for the new homes that we need. I also ask the House to consider another serious point. If the Bill were passed, hon. Members would be quick to bemoan to Ministers the fall in the value of the houses affected. It is much better to get the balance right.
Clause 4 would introduce a third-party right of appeal where councils are unwilling to oppose an application that contravenes the local plan, so that local people could appeal directly to the Secretary of State. As hon. Members know, third parties do not have the right of appeal against planning decisions as do applicants, because it is the responsibility of local planning authorities to act in the general public interest when determining planning applications. Local authorities must determine planning applications in accordance with the development plan for the area unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Those can include views expressed by local residents and other third parties—a point that all Members would do well to take note of for their advice surgeries.
A right for third parties to appeal to the Secretary of State against a decision by a local authority to grant planning permission would not be consistent with our democratically accountable system of planning. Elected councillors represent their communities and they must take account of the views of local people on planning matters before decisions are made and subsequently justify their decisions to their electorate.
Overall, the hon. Member for Solihull makes an important point in her Bill, but it has to be balanced against the rights and responsibilities of elected councillors. I hope that I have been able to provide convincing arguments to explain the Government’s problems with the Bill’s implications rather than its intent. I have not had time to go into all the details, but I believe that I have answered all the specific questions raised in the debate. I therefore invite the House carefully to reflect on my arguments.
With the leave of the House, I shall make a few brief points, so that we can move on to another important Bill that is worthy of discussion. Before I go through some of the comments that Members have made, I want to say a big thank you to every Member who has taken the time and trouble to be in the Chamber on a Friday to discuss this important Bill. I am very grateful for all the constructive remarks made on both sides of the House.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) described the Bill as flawed but amendable in Committee. I took great heart from that. He raised important points, which should be taken into consideration, about the land covered by the measure and about public sector land. He also drew attention to the fact that trees outside urban and suburban areas but in non-rural areas were not covered by the Bill. We should consider including a provision on that point.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) was enormously helpful and made many good points, especially about referendums. His suggestion that a referendum should be triggered by a specific number of signatures is worth thinking about and could be developed. Like other Members, he made some helpful comments about costs. His proposal to minimise costs by holding the referendum, whenever possible, while another election was taking place was well received.
The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) also mentioned costs and said that there should be a pre-regulation cost assessment. I entirely agree, but I did not want to tie up civil servants’ time by producing a lot of costings before the Bill went into Committee, because of the costs involved in doing so. The hon. Gentleman asked why clause 5 specified a change from two to three years and suggested that it would be better for the Secretary of State to have the power to vary the time. On reflection, I think it probably would be better. He mentioned the short time period within which the measure would come into force. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley helpfully pointed out that the Secretary of State could have the power to vary the timescale, which would be helpful.
The hon. Member for Hendon accused me of facing two ways—a criticism rarely levelled at a Liberal Democrat. He said that I seek both to empower and to impose. I probably have to plead guilty, because the Bill would empower and impose, where necessary, at different stages of the process.
The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), who is no longer in the Chamber, felt that the scope of the Bill was too wide. On reflection, I agree. He thought that the garden-grabbing Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) was better and more thought-out than my Bill. It is indeed more thought-out and has more detail, and I am happy to commend that, but it was introduced almost a year before my Bill.
The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East wanted more detail about the oak tree that I was talking about, and asked whether people would have to travel 30 miles to shop at a supermarket. In fact, there are already six supermarkets on the high street, so that is no reason to fell the oak trees. Like the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, he referred to “friends of parks” and said that there were many such groups. I agree that friends of parks do excellent work; the Bill would merely strengthen their hand.
The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) felt that the measure was a non-issue and that we do not particularly need such legislation, but tens of thousands of people in England, and especially in Wales, would disagree. He seems to think that local wishes will prevail and that it will all turn out right in the end, but the examples that I have outlined would tend to contradict that optimistic view.
The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and others accused me of wanting central Government to impose more on local people and on local authorities. I shall go back and scrutinise the Bill and see where I am seeking to do that, because that was not my intention at all. As Liberal Democrats, our view is that all decision making should be as close as possible to the people who will be affected by it.
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) wanted to know whether any alternative space had been provided by the local authority. I have to inform her that, sadly, as far as I am aware, no other space is being offered to replace the 3 acres of parkland. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady shouts from a sedentary position.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I understand that 34 extra acres in Solihull have been made new open spaces.
I wonder whether the hon. Lady is referring to the constituency of Meriden, which has a regeneration area—
No; it is in the borough.
I must inform the hon. Lady that that particular area is probably 12 to 14 miles away and it has no bearing on the quality of life of local people.
I am grateful for the Minister’s clarification, specifically with regard to the Human Rights Act, as well as on many other very important matters. He talked about localism, particularly in relation to the comments by the hon. Member for Shipley. All hon. Members would agree that we must have a balance. Of course it is appropriate at times for central Government to impose a view, but I agree that decisions should be taken locally wherever possible. I also note the Minister’s comments on the new regulatory structure for parks. I am absolutely thrilled to hear about community management and ownership; apparently my Bill has already had an influence, and I am delighted to hear it.
In summary, I imagine that every flaw that the Bill could possibly have has been pointed out this morning. However, I have been truly heartened by the sentiments expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House who recognised that the Bill, flawed though it may be, has generated great sympathy for its aims and has identified a really important issue that deserves further consideration by the House.
I think that it would be better for the Government not to oppose my Bill, and for it to have a short Committee stage. However, I notify hon. Members that if the Government oppose it, I do not intend to press the matter to a Division today, in order to provide an opportunity for another important Bill, which I support, to be discussed. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and negatived.