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Green Belt Policy

Volume 475: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2008

Today, the Campaign to Protect Rural England issued a press statement headed, “Green Belt loss a daily reality despite government pledges.”

From my point of view, that is a timely coincidence with this debate, and I should like to place on record my thanks to the CPRE, both nationally and locally, for providing me with background material.

I want to put the debate in context. Green belt policy has existed formally for more than 50 years, and it has performed its functions well. Some of the most important purposes for designating land as green belt are to protect the countryside around towns and cities from urban sprawl, to encourage the regeneration of neglected sites within towns and cities and to prevent towns from merging into each other. Of course, the most important feature of green belt land is its openness.

People prize their local countryside, and the public see development and urban sprawl as the biggest threats to the countryside. The crucial element of green belts is the permanency of their boundaries. If boundaries are shifted, the incentive provided by a designated green belt is lost, because developers and land speculators have only to wait for more greenfield sites to be opened for development, rather than making better use of urban land.

The Government have repeatedly stated their commitment to protecting the green belt. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) pledged to Parliament on 5 February 2003 that he would

“maintain or increase green-belt land in every region”.—[Official Report, 5 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 275.]

On 11 July 2007, the new Prime Minister announced that the Government would:

“continue robustly to protect the land designated as green belt.”—[Official Report, 11 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1450.]

There have also been supportive statements in the Government’s White Paper on planning, “Planning for a Sustainable Future”, which was published in May 2007. For example, recommendation No. 9, “Green Belt/Green Space”, states:

“The Government is committed to the principles of the Green Belt and will make no fundamental change to policy in this area. Existing Government policy (PPG 17) already asks planning authorities to proactively plan for the protection and enhancement of valued green space in towns and cities, including efficient and effective countryside.”

On 2 May 2007, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who was then Minister for Housing and Planning, wrote me a letter stating:

“Let me also reassure your constituent that the Government remains committed to the protection and the enhancement of the countryside and to the key principles of the green belt. Strict planning controls on green belt land are in place and there remains a general presumption against inappropriate development within green belts. The Government has no intention of making fundamental changes to Green Belt Policy.”

In an earlier letter, she stated:

“With regard to your constituent’s concerns about green belt land the Government has made clear that we believe strongly in the key principles of the green belt. There remains a general presumption against inappropriate development in the green belt and I would like to make clear that the Government has no intention of weakening this high level of protection.”

In the same letter, the Chief Secretary also stated:

“Kate Barker is also clear that in taking forward further reforms the importance of consultation and democratic accountability must be respected.”

During the Radio 4 programme, “Any Questions”, on July 13 2007, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was quizzed very closely by Jonathan Dimbleby. She said:

“I can be absolutely clear that the current protections for the Green Belt will remain as they are and we’re absolutely determined to do that”.

Jonathan Dimbleby pressed her further and asked whether

“Green Belt might have to be invaded, as it were, to build houses?”

The Secretary of State replied:

“I’m being very clear that the current planning protections for the Green Belt will absolutely remain.”

Jonathan Dimbleby pressed her even further, and the Secretary of State replied:

“No, I think I’ve tried to be as clear and unequivocal as I can be and say that the current protections for the Green Belt will remain.”

So why do I , the CPRE and my constituents have such great concerns?

I accept that the section of the 2007 White Paper that I have quoted refers to reviewing green belt boundaries. For example, regional planning bodies and local planning authorities should review green belt boundaries as part of their regional spatial strategy and local development framework processes to ensure that they remain relevant and appropriate, given the need to ensure that any planned development takes place in the most sustainable locations. Also, there are recommendations to local authorities in drawing up their development plans.

On the positive side, it is possible to identify green belt gain. A large area—47,300 hectares—of green belt in the south-east has been re-designated as the New Forest national park, which has been widely welcomed. The most recent green belt statistical release from the Department for Communities and Local Government, which was issued in January 2008, shows that since 2004 the total green belt area has grown in the north-east, north-west, south-west and Yorkshire and the Humber. Significant new areas of green belt have been created in Durham and to the west of Newcastle since 1997. Otherwise, most of the increase appears to be due to more reliable mapping by local authorities of green belt land. The statistics also show, however, that since 2004 the total green belt area has shrunk in East Anglia and in the east and west Midlands.

On the negative side, there is also a more worrying trend of significant losses of green belt land to development. Between 1997 and 2003, an average of 1,100 hectares—nearly 4 square miles—was lost each year. From 1997 to 2005, 45,240 new dwellings were permitted on green belt land. The Government approved development involving the loss of 1,300 hectares between 1997 and 2001.

Since the creation of the DCLG in May 2006, the Secretary of State has decided 48 planning applications involving development in the green belt. From those, 16 significant developments have been allowed. The loss of green belt land raises serious questions about the Government’s commitment to green belt policy in practice, despite overall gains on green belt in some regions. Great concerns are emerging that regional plans will lead to further significant losses of green belt land in years to come, and that they will particularly affect those parts of the green belt that are nearest to our major towns and cities, which are the ones that we need the most.

My specific interest is, of course, the south-west. The draft regional spatial strategy for the south-west was submitted to the Government in April 2006. The Secretary of State is expected to publish proposed changes for consultation this summer, following the panel report in January 2008. Both the draft RSS and the panel report proposed amending the general extent of all three green belts in the south-west to allow a number of urban extensions to accommodate housing development.

The RSS also proposed several extensions to the green belt to compensate for land lost to urban extensions, but the panel report rejected that proposal due to lack of justification. That was despite its being clear that the report’s recommendations and the RSS will lead to significant losses of green belt land. Was it not a Government promise that replacement land would be added to the green belt in the event of development on green belt land?

I would like to focus further on the south-east Dorset green belt. Up to 8,550 dwellings could be built on it. The RSS proposes urban extensions, with 2,400 dwellings spread over sites at Corfe Mullen, Wimborne, Ferndown and Christchurch, and there will be further losses of green belt around Bournemouth. In addition to supporting the RSS proposals, the panel report went further and added another urban extension of 1,500 homes to north Bournemouth and one of 2,750 dwellings to Poole, which is of particular interest to me as it is in my constituency. A further 1,000 dwellings are also recommended for green belt land in semi-rural east Dorset.

A major concern that I have previously raised with Ministers is the democratic deficit. For example, the democratic East Dorset district council, which is the relevant planning authority, voted to reject the proposals for development on green belt around Corfe Mullen and Wimborne. On the 700 homes for Corfe Mullen, the parish council, separately but in conjunction with an interest group called Keep Corfe Mullen Green, did a survey of the whole parish. There has been a total disregard of the value that people place on their local green belt.

The panel report recommends that Purbeck as a whole should have an increased housing allocation of 5,150 homes—above the 2,100 already agreed, and including 2,750 homes on a site that happens to be in my constituency. No democratically elected council asked for the latter recommendation—the inspector responded to a landowner’s desire to build. Indeed, the proposal was opposed by all democratically elected councils. Three action groups have recently been set up. Sustainable Matravers held a public meeting that more than 400 people attended, and Lytchett Minster has an action group, as does Upton. The strength of feeling is enormous.

Members should consider what Purbeck is like. It has an enormous amount of valuable heathland. Natural England, of course, does not want development impinging on it or close to it. Purbeck has a world heritage coastline, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty. With all those restrictions in quite a small area, many consider that it would be impossible to fit an extra 5,150 homes into Purbeck and protect the green belt. If the housing numbers are not cut, our green belt will be gone. A flexible, moveable green belt is a non-existent one.

Drilling down further, the 2,750 homes are basically an urban extension. Like the conurbation of Bournemouth and Poole, its tentacles will reach out to engulf the two villages of Lytchett Minster and Lytchett Matravers, yet the green belt is supposed to provide a band that enables distinct communities to survive. With that level of development, the character of the local area will be destroyed, and our close knit communities will lose their many advantages. The land, which is predominantly agricultural, is perhaps becoming rather more important as food prices rise. It supports valuable wildlife, including, I am told, nightjars.

One resident wrote:

“Tourism an important source of income for Dorset. People come to see our countryside, as well as our coast. We will lose the ambience that brings people to Dorset for tourism. With no infrastructure provided, roads will be totally clogged up. If extra roads are built, that puts pressure on our environment and SSSIs.”

The agricultural land provides vital carbon sinks. There has to be a balance between urban growth and policies to reduce our carbon footprint. I understand that peat bogs are most effective in capturing carbon dioxide but that agricultural land is better than heathland. There would be a significant loss of agricultural land on the urban fringe.

Interestingly, the principle of the urban extension is supported by Poole, whose pace of development is rapid and above its targets. It has outstanding opportunities to build on brownfield sites.

I appreciate that the Minister cannot reply today to the specific points that I have raised on the panel’s recommendations, but I would like some answers in respect of general policy. First, are the Government still committed to protecting the green belt? Secondly, do they agree that a key purpose of having green belt policy is to protect the countryside around towns and cities from urban sprawl? I hope that the Government share my opposition to large-scale, unsustainable developments that would absolutely smash green belt policy. I hope that central Government targets are not being pursued regardless of the impact on the green belt or local democratic accountability.

I also hope that the Government will support much-needed housing for local young people. We need small developments and incremental change, and we need some additions to our villages. Lytchett Matravers, for example, is a thriving village. It has two pubs, a post office and shops, and it has development—sometimes 100 units a year, sometimes 40 a year. That is the type of development that is needed. Otherwise, there will be more and more pressure from people buying second homes and moving in.

My final request to the Minister relates to our previous debate. I request a meeting with him or one of his colleagues, the chief executive of Synergy Housing Group, which is responsible for the main housing trust, and members of Purbeck district council to discuss funding for affordable housing. I appreciate that we cannot talk about the RSS, but there are things that we ought to be getting on with, and I shall give just one example. The council owns some land on which it wishes to build properties. Natural England has clocked that the land is within the 400 m limit, and its answer is for the council to buy land elsewhere. That is fine in theory, but it means that the local housing association via the Housing Corporation needs more money to provide much-needed social housing in my constituency.

I hope that the Minister can answer all my questions today.

I am pleased to see you again so soon, Mr. Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing this debate. She mentioned the debate in December last year about housing in her constituency, which touched on affordability pressures and the designation of land in her constituency. I enjoyed that debate, and I enjoyed her contribution on a similar theme today. The hon. Lady has provided hon. Members with a valuable and timely opportunity to consider the relationship between the protection of green belt land, the need for more housing, and the role of the regional spatial strategy.

Green belt policy is an important part of planning, and, as the hon. Lady said, it has served us well for many decades. As she did in her excellent contribution, I think that it would be useful to set the green belt policy into some sort of context. The idea of a green belt was introduced in the 1930s, primarily as a device to help planners to forestall inappropriate development and to avoid the piecemeal joining-up of discrete communities by means of unplanned, so-called ribbon development extending into the countryside. It also served to preserve the openness of that countryside, to which the hon. Lady referred. In essence, that remains its role today, when the pressures on land are even more intense.

Perhaps the key point in any discussion about green belt planning policy is to acknowledge that it is a planning designation, as opposed to some sort of assessment of the quality and biodiversity of the land. It was not intended or planned to be a nature or landscape conservation measure, although I fully recognise that biodiversity and the countryside benefit incidentally as a consequence of green belt designation.

The objectives of green belt policy remain similar to what they always have been: to check the unplanned and unrestricted sprawl of developed areas, to prevent neighbouring towns and urban areas from merging into one another—the hon. Lady mentioned that—to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment and to preserve the special character of our historic towns. Another objective, which is often overlooked in discussion of green belt policy, so I was pleased that the hon. Lady mentioned it, is to assist in the regeneration of our urban communities by encouraging the recycling of derelict brownfield and other urban land. The intention is strategic. If any other designation is required on a particular stretch of land, such as a site of special scientific interest or an area of outstanding natural beauty—that will interest the hon. Lady, given her constituency—that designation and whatever protection it confers would be imposed on top of green belt status, which does not override or compromise them.

This is a timely debate, and it is worth using the opportunity to dispel the myth that is often put about that this nation and its countryside are being concreted over by building on green belt land. As the hon. Lady said, it was mentioned in some parts of the media only this morning, so let me clarify the position. Some 13 per cent. of England’s land mass is designated green belt. Urban land, which is defined as any tract of land of more than 20 hectares with at least 1,000 inhabitants, amounts to 8.8 per cent. of England's land mass.

I want to take the opportunity to counter the notion that the green belt is somehow shrinking, as was reported today. On the contrary, as a result of active compliance with our planning policy framework, the amount of green belt land continues to increase. Since 1997, the amount of green belt land has increased by about 33,000 hectares. In the south-west alone, there is around 109,640 hectares of green belt, despite the reclassification of much green belt as national park land and, as the hon. Lady acknowledged, the adjustments made after the introduction of more accurate digital mapping. Let me be clear: the Government’s target is that we should sustain the area of designated green belt nationally, measured by region, during the period 2008-11.

I want to talk about pressure on green belt, particularly from housing. The Government’s policy on planning for housing, as set out in planning policy statement 3, is extraordinarily clear in my view. Priority should be given to bringing previously developed land back into development if it is in a suitable location. The national target is that 60 per cent. of housing should be built on brownfield land. Current performance against that target is 74 per cent. The target is delivered by local authorities through the planning system, reflecting the particular circumstances of regions and local areas, so different localities may establish different targets. The judgment on what is appropriate in the hon. Lady’s constituency in the south-west will be different in my constituency in the north-east.

In May last year, the planning White Paper, “Planning for a sustainable future”, reinforced the Government’s commitment to the key principles of green belt, which are set out in planning policy guidance note 2 on green belts. The hon. Lady mentioned the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and it is important to reiterate them. He said:

“I assure the House that we will continue robustly to protect the land designated as green belt.”— [Official Report, 11 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1449.]

We have no intention of making fundamental changes to green belt policy. As the hon. Lady said, green belt policy has served us well for around half a century, and will continue to do so.

As the hon. Lady is aware, regional spatial strategies prepared by regional planning bodies set the framework for green belt policy and settlement policy for each region, forming the strategic context for local plan making. However, I want to clarify matters. Policies in local plans—not the decision of any regional planning body—establish the detailed boundary of green belt areas. Moreover, as the hon. Lady is aware, under our plan-led system, when a local planning authority's development plan documents contain relevant policies, planning applications must be determined in accordance with that plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

In the context of development control, PPG2 explains the key policy, which is a presumption against inappropriate development on green belt land. PPG2 allows for some development within green belts—for example, to support agriculture or forestry, or to allow for limited development in existing villages. The hon. Lady mentioned those themes. Other development should not be approved, except in very special circumstances. The strength of the criterion has been confirmed in a number of recent legal cases. In practice, very little green belt has been lost. In 2003, the latest year for which we have figures, less than 0.1 per cent. of land designated as green belt was developed for residential use.

I hope that I have painted for the Chamber and particularly the hon. Lady an accurate picture, which is not often portrayed, of a country that has more green belt land than urban developed land, where the amount of green belt land is increasing year on year, and where the subsequent development of green belt land is minuscule. Only in exceptional circumstances may green belt boundaries be amended through the development plan process, and only after public consultation and independent examination.

I know that that is a matter that greatly interests the hon. Lady, who spoke eloquently about it during her Adjournment debate in December, as well as today, so I want to spend the time available considering that, bearing in mind the constraints that she has acknowledged—that I will not discuss specific circumstances in the south-west regional spatial strategy.

My constituents’ concerns are that the examination in public has come up with 2,750 houses, and that that is a Government diktat from Westminster because of the overall target for the number of new homes. If the Minister could dispel my constituents’ fear that the new homes will be imposed because of Westminster diktat, I think they would be much less concerned.

The hon. Lady is tempting me, but I will not be drawn into specific circumstances. The end-of-sitting Adjournment debate in the House tonight is about the south-west regional spatial strategy and she may be able to intervene on the hon. Gentleman who has secured the debate. However, I will not be drawn on the specifics.

The examination in public is the mechanism by which regional spatial strategies prepared by the regional planning body are submitted in report form for assessment and, if necessary, revision. The examinations are formal events, not a forum for hearing representations, which should have been made by that stage. They comprise consideration of the report by an appointed panel, which invites a range of people to speak, but only those whose participation is, in its view, necessary to secure an effective examination of the strategic issues. As my noble Friend Baroness Andrews explained to the hon. Member in her letter of 19 February, the aim is to select participants who, between them, represent a broad range of viewpoints, thereby enabling an equitable balance of opinions in a discussion of the soundness of the draft regional spatial strategy. I know that that has worried the hon. Lady, and I hope that the point that Baroness Andrews and I have made reassures her.

All in all, any proposal to change the boundary of a green belt and any development proposal for land in the green belt, whatever its scale, is subject to stringent tests. The Government fully recognise the pressure on green belt land from development. Sufficient housing to meet our needs has not been built for something like a generation. As a result, there is a fundamental mismatch between the supply of housing and the demand for housing. That is having an impact on affordability; not least, in the hon. Lady’s constituency, as she mentioned in her debate in December, and the south-west region as a whole. That has the effect of putting home ownership out of the reach of many and we need to address that.

I have already mentioned that PPS3 includes the notion that housing development should be prioritised towards previously developed land. However, national planning policy recognises that some greenfield land—undeveloped land that may or may not be needed for green belt—may be needed for some development. PPS3 puts the responsibility on local authorities to decide where to locate housing, to identify sites and to manage brownfield sites back into development where possible to minimise the call on greenfield and designated green belt land.

Green belt policy has served the country for well over half a century and has helped to prevent or minimise urban sprawl. It has protected the countryside from inappropriate, speculative and unplanned development. In the past decade, we have seen an increase in the amount of land designated as green belt. The leakage from development on green belt is extremely small, and there is a growing and accelerating trend towards development on previously developed land. Despite the pressures on land as a result of our need for more housing, I am convinced that the planning policies and framework that we currently have in place serve us well in relation to the retention and extension of the green belt.

In closing, let me reassure the hon. Lady by categorically stating that green belt land will continue to be protected in an extremely robust manner by this Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past Five o’clock.