The Secretary of State received about 35,000 responses from individuals and organisations to the consultation on her proposed changes to the south-west regional spatial strategy. This is the largest number ever received to such a consultation. My officials at the government office for the south-west are assessing the responses, and the Secretary of State will consider proposals for a revised timetable shortly.
The Minister will be aware of a number of Adjournment debates secured by me and other hon. Members on this issue, in which he has been unable—following guidance, I am sure—to discuss the details. We are constantly told that Ministers cannot talk about the details of the regional spatial strategy. The Minister kindly agreed to a meeting with Gloucestershire MPs tomorrow, but said in an e-mail that he cannot discuss the content of the RSS, and cannot communicate the points raised at the meeting with decision-making Ministers because that would avoid new issues arising that might necessitate a further round of consultation. Surely Members of Parliament should be given the right to discuss with Ministers such an important issue that affects their constituencies. It is not just me who is pressing for this: hon. Members from different political parties across the south-west are very unhappy with the RSS. Surely we have a right to a proper discussion of it.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point and summarises the planning position extremely well. He alludes to the fact that we have had a number of Adjournment debates on this issue—he secured one in May 2008—and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has answered questions on the issue on the Floor of the House. I take the position that hon. Members should have quick and rapid access to Ministers in order to put their concerns. Having said that, it is also very important to be mindful of the propriety of planning guidance. Paragraph 26 of that guidance is very clear: at the current stage of proposals, when the draft stage has been out to consultation and the Secretary of State is considering those consultations, Ministers involved in the decision-making process cannot make representations. That is fair; otherwise, as the hon. Gentleman says, we would have to have a further round of consultation. That would not be fair and it would delay the consultation still further, which I do not think he wants.
May I say thank you to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government for his welcome visit to Plymouth, where he heard of our ambition to be the engine driver of the far south-west? I would also like to thank colleagues for listening during the period in which we could make representations and be heard. Finally, I would like to observe that we really hope that Plymouth will be reinstated in the final version of the regional spatial strategy to reflect its role as engine driver of the far south-west economy.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment and her question. I was down in Plymouth last week—not in my hon. Friend’s constituency—and saw first hand the ambition and how good community representatives are in that area. She is aware that the consultation has now finished, so I cannot put what she has said forward to the planning decision maker, but I certainly take on board those points.
My constituents find it very difficult to reconcile statements from Ministers that the Government are absolutely committed to protecting the green belt with proposals in the regional spatial strategy for large-scale development in the green belt. Notwithstanding what the Minister has just said, what assurances or reassurances can he give my constituents about the criteria and methodology that the Government will use in assessing the green-belt issues?
My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have made it very clear that the planning policy arrangements surrounding green belt are robust and have stood us in good stead for something like half a century—and we continue to adhere to them. There has actually been an increase in the number of hectares of green belt since 1997. We have been protecting the countryside—something that the Government will continue to do.
I entirely appreciate the constraints on the Minister in responding to questions today, but I urge him and his colleagues to take into account the concerns of people in urban areas that implementation of the regional spatial strategy may make it easier for developers to pick off sites in undeveloped areas rather than put their resources into developing regeneration sites on brownfield sites in city centres. I urge him to ensure that we do not lose sight of that objective.
I certainly take on board my hon. Friend’s points. I think that that was made clear during the consultation process. She is aware that I cannot take that forward at the moment, because the consultation period has closed and the Secretary of State is considering the responses, but the issue certainly came out during the consultation period.
The Minister will be aware that last week the planning inspector upheld a decision of East Dorset district council to refuse planning permission for 60 houses in the green belt at Colehill in my constituency. Can my constituents take heart at that decision, in that the Secretary of State will not persist with her proposals to build in the green belt in south-east Dorset?
I am reluctant to comment on specific proposals because of the quasi-judicial nature of the function of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in this context, but I repeat what I have said in earlier responses. We have robustly defended the green belt, and we have actually expanded it since 1997. We see it as a major, powerful planning tool to help prevent urban sprawl. It is absolutely essential, and we will continue to defend it wherever necessary.
Perhaps the Minister would like to explain to us how many of those representations relate to the removal of green belt protection from land around Bristol, Bath, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Bournemouth and south-east Dorset. He referred to the quasi-judicial nature of the Secretary of State’s function. Will he bear in mind that the Secretary of State’s own statement that
“the proposed changes would result in loss of green belt land”
flatly contradicts his own assurance to the House, and the Prime Minister’s, that such land would be “robustly” protected? May we have quasi-consistency as well?
Nice line, but I think I can do a bit better than that.
As I said earlier, we received 35,000 responses to our consultation, the largest number ever. The consultation featured three broad themes: the overall level of housing provision, infrastructure and the regional distinctiveness of the south-west. All those points need to be taken into account, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will ensure that they are addressed.