The 2007 figures are not yet available. Between 2003 and 2006, there was an increase of 7,500 hectares in the green belt across the country, excluding the re-designation of the New Forest as a national park. Six regions showed small increases and three showed small decreases in the total amount of green belt land.
I thank the Minister for her reply, and I am pleased that she thinks that extensions to the green belt, where appropriate, are welcome. Does she accept, however, that the continuing policy of urban extensions, led by the market, will result in areas that have repeatedly been turned down for development—such as the so-called white land at Leckhampton, near my constituency—being placed under increasing pressure unless the protection of green belt status is extended to them? Will she reconsider the policy of market-led urban extension, which seems to encourage developers to focus on such affluent areas rather than on urban regeneration, social housing and struggling small villages, or on counties such as Cornwall, which need and want the housing more?
We certainly support the continued protection of the green belt, and that protection will need to increase in some parts of the country. It is a matter for regional planning authorities and local councils, however. The hon. Gentleman asked about urban extension and other areas needing additional housing. We all need to recognise that we need to build more homes for the next generation. We are not building enough at the moment. The number has increased substantially over the past few years, but it is still not high enough. It is a matter for local councils to take responsible decisions about where the new homes should be built and where protection is needed, but we cannot run away from these important decisions.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept that the formulation of a local development framework provides a good opportunity to consider whether any changes should be made to the green belt. In my constituency, the local authority is proposing a couple of sensible changes around Tinsley park, but another proposed change in the Bridle Stile area and the attractive Moss valley has been withdrawn because, although the council’s proposals would allow the land to remain as open space, it believes that putting it into the green belt would trigger a wholesale review of all the green belt in the city, with all the time and cost consequences that that would entail. Will my hon. Friend look into this matter to ascertain whether it is possible to make such marginal and beneficial changes without triggering a comprehensive review, with all the problems that that could create?
I am happy to look at the case that my hon. Friend has raised. He will be aware that we are unable to comment on individual cases, and that there are proper procedures that need to be followed when planning designations need to take place, but I will certainly look further into the case that he has mentioned.
Members will have read with interest the reference in The Times today to an interview with the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas), in which he talks about scrapping the green belt. Will the Minister take this opportunity publicly to reject his comments and to pledge her continued support for green belt protection? If not, is not the future of the green belt under Labour more uncertain than ever?
That is complete nonsense. We have just published a planning White Paper in which we make it absolutely clear that the green belt protection needs to continue. The green belt is important. However, the hon. Lady often uses the green belt and concern about house building in general to argue against house building. In fact, she said in response to the White Paper that regional assemblies were building too—
Of course it is not just about the quantity of green belt, but about the quality and whether it is publicly accessible. One of the positive legacies of the former Greater Manchester council 21 years ago was the transformation of the old industrialised river valleys into pleasant open spaces and country parks. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important in urbanised areas such as Denton and Reddish that we not only look after and protect these open spaces from unwarranted encroachments by the industrialised and urban areas surrounding them, but look to build on them and extend them further to create more open spaces for my constituents?
My hon. Friend is right. We need to ensure that the quality of the environment is improved. That includes green spaces on the edge of towns and those in towns as well. That is why we have made investing in the environment and green spaces a priority across areas such as the Thames Gateway, because it is important that local communities have access to good quality open space.