It is a great pleasure to have secured this important debate on garden land development, which has been hotly debated in the Commons for some time. I wish to go through a chronology of the kind of debates that we have had on this subject over recent years, and to raise some matters from my own constituency. I shall also draw on other issues, on which hon. Members may wish to reflect.
It is a great pity that the Conservatives do not seem to have put forward a Front-Bench spokesman because I am discussing matters that they, too, need to address—[Interruption.] The spokesman is arriving as I speak, perhaps having been persuaded to come by the note that I dropped into their Whips Office outlining the issues that I would be raising.
Garden land development is a hotly debated subject, which is partly because we know that the planning system is largely fuelled by greed rather than need. The system itself has to balance the various pressures that are on both planning committees and authorities. In particular, I am referring to the pressures on valuable—especially from a developer’s point of view—garden sites in exclusive parts of our towns and cities, and in smaller towns and villages. Clearly the pressure for such development, which concerns all parties, is something that local authorities are struggling to cope with.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and I hope to contribute later. Does he accept that it is not just the exclusive areas of towns and cities that are under pressure, but all sorts of areas, and that they deserve equal protection?
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we are not just talking about exclusive areas. I was making the point that developers’ interests are acute in areas in which the potential inducements of greatly increased land values are particularly large.
Just picking up on that point, does my hon. Friend agree that part of the attraction of garden development for many developers is that they can buy one house and then put in place nine properties—flats and so on—without having to provide any affordable housing? They thus choose such land over larger developments, which have to include affordable housing, which has a significant impact on all neighbourhoods.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point that has been highlighted in many debates in the House. I am sure that the Minister will take it on board and comment on it later. If there is a wish to produce affordable housing on garden land developments, there is a problem, because such developments often fall below the quota level that a local authority requires to be able to insist that a proportion of the properties are made available for those needing affordable housing.
I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and I apologise that I will not be able to stay for the whole debate. Does he agree that one of the real issues here is the fact that back gardens are effectively known as brownfield sites, which makes their development easy? In that regard, may I draw his attention to my private Member’s Bill, which will be considered on 8 May, entitled Land Use (Gardens Protections Etc) Bill, which would deal with that by zoning gardens as green, which is what they are?
The hon. Gentleman is right to make the extremely good point that planning is driven by greed not need. Not only do developers not have to provide affordable housing in such circumstances, and not only do they often cram in blocks of flats without gardens or parking, which causes problems for neighbourhoods, but they do not have to make a contribution towards infrastructure around those sites, such as new roads. That is yet another attraction for them, and a reason why we should try to give special protection to such garden sites.
The hon. Gentleman is right, of course. Depending on the scale of the development, it can be difficult for local planning authorities to insist, through a section 106 agreement, that developers make a significant contribution to infrastructure. The Government have said that they have given local authorities the power to apply 106 agreement obligations to developers in such circumstances, but many local authorities have found it very difficult to address the real infrastructure implications of many such developments, especially when there is additional pressure on parking, amenity space and other things within town centres.
By securing this debate, my hon. Friend has demonstrated once again how effectively he represents his constituency in this place. Does he recognise the difficulty faced by local councils that are forced—owing to the likelihood in many cases of losing on appeal—to permit small developments with no affordable housing, but at the same time are not allowed to provide large-scale affordable housing, even in mixed developments? Furthermore, housing associations cannot build the affordable housing that is desperately needed as a result of the Government’s failure to provide affordable housing over the past 10 years.
My hon. Friend raises a point that places this debate in the context of the need and desire—I share that desire with the Government—to meet affordable housing need. There is a significant difference between what is happening with garden land development, which largely—certainly in my part of the world—makes a nil, or if anything a miniscule, contribution to meeting the desperate need for affordable housing, and the kind of schemes required to meet that need. In areas such as mine, those schemes are extremely difficult to bring forward. There is an astronomical difference between house prices and earnings in such places, so particular skills and efforts are required, primarily on the part of public authorities, to meet the sort of affordable housing need that he rightly highlights.
Garden land development is at the heart of middle England, which is in part why it is so hotly debated. It concerns a group of people on which all political parties direct a tremendous amount of political focus, hence the tremendous effort by certain parties to expend what is arguably a disproportionate amount of political time on trying to win the argument, to present themselves as the saviours of garden land and to reassure affected neighbourhoods that they are on side. There is plenty of opportunity, therefore, for claims, counter-claims, point scoring and bandwagon jumping.
Having got over the first hurdle of taking various interventions, I hope to give a potted history of what has been happening in recent years, an assessment of the impact of the difficulties of classifying gardens as brownfield sites, and the primary problems associated with garden land development. I shall then examine the origins of the modern-day trend towards garden land development and give a short narrative on issues that I have raised over the years regarding garden land development and similar development in the small market and rural towns in my constituency. I shall also scrutinise closely some of the more recent campaigning before coming to my concluding remarks.
With regard to chronology, these issues have been debated many times. I particularly commend my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) for having listened to and been engaged in many debates in the House on planning and development. On 19 July 2005, following the general election, she introduced a ten-minute Bill entitled the Local Government and Planning (Parkland and Windfall Development) Bill. She hit the nail on the head when she proposed amending planning policy guidance note 3 to designate gardens as greenfield land, with an exception for extensions into back gardens. She suggested that such land would be developed last under the sequential test and highlighted the importance of protecting parkland and amenity land in town centres.
On 1 February 2006, the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) introduced a Bill that was similar, but more narrowly focused on private gardens. On 20 October 2006, my hon. Friend’s Bill had its Second Reading debate, which was preceded, on 21 June 2006, by an Opposition day debate led by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). The Opposition motion began:
“That this House shares the concern of communities throughout the United Kingdom over the scale of residential development on garden land”.
A number of issues were set out, particularly with regard to the designation of garden land as brownfield sites.
On 2 February 2007, the Second Reading of a private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Lady, the Land Use (Gardens Protection etc) Bill, was debated. On 18 March 2008, she introduced, under the ten-minute rule, the Land Use (Garden Protection) Bill, which I co-sponsored.
The issue was hotly debated during the passage of the Bill that became the Planning Act 2008, through which there was an attempt to amend the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and subsequent Acts to make local authorities have special regard to
“the desirability of preserving gardens, groups of gardens and urban green spaces.”
An amendment to that effect was made in the House of Lords on 12 November 2008, but it was successfully struck out by the Government when the Commons considered Lords amendments to the Bill on 24 November 2008. Ministers promised at that stage that there would be a review of the impact of garden land development. There has been some progress, in that the review’s remit has been announced, but I would be interested to hear what progress is being made with the review.
Many statistics have been traded on the impact of garden land development. Although the Government have met their target of increasing the proportion of development on brownfield sites, it is clear that many of those developments have involved garden land. Looking at the statistics, it has been difficult, even in my area, to draw out the impact that garden land development has had, unless one analyses individual sites. However, it is clear that there has been a significant impact in my area.
The main problem with garden land development has been well highlighted in previous debates. Such development contradicts the established British view of what towns and cities should be. The Town and Country Planning Association, Britain’s oldest planning charity, was founded in 1899 by Sir Ebenezer Howard. At that time, it was called the Garden Cities Association, and its purpose was to promote the idea of the garden city. Such a perspective of towns and cities is well established in British life. We do not see towns and cities as simply urban jungles without any green space, but as places where there are green lungs and wedges, and where gardens are protected. There is a recognition that such areas make a valuable contribution to the life of our towns and cities. As has been highlighted, garden land development can have an impact on biodiversity, drainage, climate change and aesthetics, and the creation of such developments can lead to neighbourhood conflicts. Also, as hon. Members have said, such developments do not necessarily address the urgent need for affordable housing, because, often, they are below the quota level on which local authorities insist.
The origins of garden land development go back further than 1997; in fact, they go back to 1985 when, under a Conservative Government, there was a change to the existing definition of brownfield land for the purpose of land use planning statistics. In my part of the world, there was a rush of successful applications to develop gardens during the late 1980s. The pressure arose because the message went out that people with large gardens were sitting on a gold mine that they should realise. The pattern emerged at that stage, so it is not new and did not first arise in the late 1990s.
Clearly, additional pressure was applied when the former Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who was then in charge of the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, set targets for councils to prioritise building new homes on brownfield sites in 1998. The Government met their target of building 60 per cent. on previously developed land in 2001, years earlier than planned.
A number of problems have been created in my part of the world by intense waves of excessive development, particularly in the mid to late 1980s, the late 1990s and throughout the past 10 years. I have received many letters from constituents, but I will read one from Naomi Cliff of St. Ives, which was sent to me on 18 July 2007. She wrote:
“We are constantly seeing inappropriate modern buildings rising up in our historic town on the smallest of plots and in the most inappropriate areas; mainly catering for the second home market as they make no provision for affordability and are architecturally misplaced.”
I have raised the issue on behalf of my constituents for many years. On 25 October 2005, I received a letter from the right hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who was then a Minister in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, explaining:
“Classifying gardens as ‘Residential’ was…not a creation of the current Government. This definition was later incorporated into PPG3 in 2000. The Land Use Change statistics classification has not changed since 1985.”
The district council felt that it did not have the power to resist the kind of developments that I have described. When I showed a copy of that letter to the head of sustainable development and improvement at Penwith district council, Mr. Barton, he wrote back to me on 22 May 2006 saying:
“however, it is still evident from appeal decisions received that inspectors are placing much weight to the brownfield case.”
That letter concerns garden land development within my constituency.
The Government adapted what is now planning policy statement 6 in April 2007. In a letter to me dated 19 September 2007, the right hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford wrote:
“Planning Policy Statement 3 (PPS3) goes further and gives local authorities more flexibility to shape new development according to the needs of their area, and allows them to make the decisions on where new housing should be located. It makes clear local authorities can put strong emphasis on protecting urban green spaces, parks and play areas within their plans…The new policy statement gives them greater powers to restrict garden development if they have alternative viable land available and the level of development within residential areas is much higher than their plan.”
The problem with that is that while alternative sites had been identified by local authorities, developers were unfortunately not prepared to bring them forward. The five-year development of land was available and planning permissions had been granted, but that put pressure back on garden land development, despite the best efforts of local authorities to find development land.
Is my hon. Friend aware that finding alternative sites in intensely populated areas such as south-west London is near impossible, even when trying to build new schools that are required? That caveat is entirely unsuitable for an area where population densities are already incredibly high; it merely adds more pressure, and is not necessarily an appropriate protection.
I certainly hope that the Minister will take those comments on board. My hon. Friend has a great deal more experience than me of the particular planning pressures in areas such as south-west London. I can only comment from my experiences of attempting to assist constituents in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, which I represent and where I come from.
After I raised that issue with the sustainable development and design manager, Andrew England, from Penwith district council, he responded, in a letter of 25 July 2007:
“However, as the planning legislation currently states the plot in question”—
in this case, another plot in St. Ives—
“is regarded as brownfield land where the principle of development is supported. Inevitably given the national issues surrounding the need for more housing this places greater pressure upon such sites, unless further greenfield land is to be released for development.”
As I have said, the local authority had already identified plenty of greenfield development space for developers, but it was not being brought forward—hence the pressure for development on garden land.
Of course, the pressure is not only on garden land. I was rather shocked to receive a letter from Strutt and Parker, which presumed that I owned the offices that I occupied in Belgravia street in Penzance. The letter told me that
“There is a strong demand from developers for both green and brown field sites”,
and that Strutt and Parker were able to
“guide you through the planning system; co-ordinate other professional advisers in gaining planning permission and dealing with section 106 agreements; and consequently dispose of your property with the intention of”
optimising its value. Unfortunately, my landlady got hold of that information, and I was promptly turfed out of my office, which was turned into flats. The problem was that the car park that was available for the offices that I occupied had 10 spaces and that land is being developed as well. The parking pressures in that area are so intense for local people that adding further flats there without the provision of any further parking or amenity land is storing up serious problems. I certainly hope that the Minister is prepared to take that issue on board.
In dealing with all these issues, I want to spend a small amount of time concentrating on the need to be consistent in campaigns. I apologise for going on, but I have taken a number of interventions. I first became aware of the Conservatives’ campaign when the local residents group in my constituency alerted me to an unsolicited letter from the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells on House of Commons headed paper dated 17 May 2006, following a debate on his ten-minute Bill, saying:
“the Parliamentary rules give the Bill another chance on the 14 July. This is a precious opportunity for the Government to change its mind.”
The implication of that perhaps led to the storing up of expectation among many constituents—perhaps even among people throughout the country—that a ten-minute Bill was likely to be passed by Parliament. A lot of Liberal Democrat Members agree with the proposal that the designation by the Conservatives of gardens as brownfield development land in 1985 should be withdrawn.
On 2 February 2007, the then shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Meriden, said during the Second Reading of her private Member’s Bill, the Land Use (Gardens Protection etc) Bill:
“The only people who are not losing out from the rush to develop back gardens are the developers and land speculators. For them, England is literally becoming a treasure island.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2007; Vol. 456, c. 473.]
On 1 October 2007, at the Conservative party conference, the shadow housing spokesperson, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), said:
“I know that you share my concern over the practice of garden grabbing, so we’ll change planning law to recognise that brownfield does not mean your neighbour’s garden.”
On 28 November 2008, following the defeat of the Conservative Earl Cathcart’s amendment to the Planning Bill, the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) was reported in The Daily Telegraph as saying:
“Labour’s rules have given a green light for garden grabbing and rich pickings for developers…leading to leafy gardens being dug up and replaced with soulless and ugly blocks of flats…Our proposals would increase protection for gardens”.
They say all that, but in my constituency in May 2007 the Conservative party headquarters applied for six flats in its own back garden. [Interruption.] Of course, it was not making the application, but a company made up of a former Conservative councillor and a prospective parliamentary candidate was. Earlier that year, the hon. Member for Meriden had said:
“Such applications are divisive, because they set neighbour against neighbour.” —[Official Report, 2 February 2007; Vol. 456, c. 473.]
Lo and behold, that application certainly did so, because the neighbours in that setting, in Alexandra road and Hawkins road in Penzance, were up in arms against that development and pointed out to the local Conservatives that the party had made a lot of claims to be the saviours of garden land. At the same time it was applying for planning permission to build in its own garden in a conservation area.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the planning application for the garden land at Alexandra house—the headquarters —is before Penwith district council. Given that all six Conservative councillors on the planning committee of Penwith district council will declare a pecuniary interest and take no part in the debate, is he saying that the remaining councillors, including Councillors Ruhrmund, Mates, Cook, Jack Dixon and Terry Tonkin—all Liberal Democrats—will somehow make a decision outside planning law that is improper, irregular or potentially unlawful? Does he believe in local democracy or not?
I absolutely believe in local democracy. I am not going to comment on the merits or otherwise of that particular planning application because it is up to the local authority and its planning committee to decide how it will determine it.
In fact, the hon. Gentleman invites me to point out that the planning application of May 2007 was withdrawn with a certain amount of red face on the part of the Conservatives. They assured local residents that they had apologised for it, and local residents felt satisfied at that point that they did not need to take any further action, but they drew the matter to my attention and I took it up with the planning department. I could have made political hay with that issue in the House and scored a lot of political points. However, I am interested in the protection of garden land, not turning such issues into a political dogfight. Once the application had been withdrawn, that was it as far as I was concerned, which is why, later on in March 2008, I was content to sponsor the Bill of the hon. Member for Meriden when requested. I felt that we must stand above party political tribalism and not attempt to make party political points on the issue.
I was happy to support the Conservatives’ private Member’s Bill introduced in March 2008, but imagine my disappointment—the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) has just drawn attention to this—when I discovered that, during that time, the Conservatives had indirectly sold the land to a developer and that a planning application by that developer had come before the planning committee in November.
That application is about to be determined and, as I say, I am not going to comment on the merits of it. However, the point is that it is all very well masquerading as the saviour of garden land, but Conservative Front Benchers were informed by residents in my constituency that that was going on at the time and they received no response from them whatsoever. The Conservatives had backed down shamefacedly in June 2007 when it was pointed out to them that what had happened directly contradicted everything on which they had been campaigning.
Residents in Hawkins road and Alexandra road in my constituency are much put out by the way in which the issue has been managed because not only was the garden sold to a developer, but the Conservatives negotiated a clawback clause. That means that if the development goes ahead and the planning application is successful, the Conservative association will secure for itself up to nearly £250,000. We need to be careful that what we say in this House is carried out by our foot soldiers on the ground in our constituencies. It is a matter of deep embarrassment for the Conservatives nationally and locally that this should have happened. I put my faith in the hon. Member for Meriden and the Front-Bench team because I was prepared to turn a blind eye to the mistake made in May 2007 and sponsor their Bill. I feel that they have seriously let me down and destroyed the trust I had that what happened was simply a blip—a mistake that they had made at that stage. I admit to making political mistakes and I have been shown to be naive in trusting the Conservatives at that stage and allowing them to go ahead in that way.
Every planning application should come forward on its own merits, and I am not debating the merits of one application over another. All I am saying is that that planning application was at one time considered unacceptable for that area. The residents were up in arms about it, it was withdrawn and an apology was given, but there has been an attempt to bring forward the development by the back door.
I apologise to my hon. Friend and other hon. Members for not being present at the start of the debate, but I was attending a Public Bill Committee sitting that has only now ended. He is drawing attention to the fact that his constituents, and many others across the country, may be misled into believing that there has been a firm commitment and policy to act in a certain way. Individual cases might lead people to believe that things were done differently. The issue is not about the planning application, but about people seeking to make political capital out of a particular planning point. There is then a failure to address that at a local level
I am grateful to you, Mr. Olner, for pointing that out to me and I apologise, but I have been attempting to be generous to hon. Members who wish to make points. I will now bring my remarks to a close.
It is all very well going through a rebranding process—I fear that the Conservatives see the world of politics merely as a marketing exercise—but politicians need genuinely to understand and accept the basis of the political claims they make. If they claim to be the saviours of garden land, they cannot at the same time be engaged in the type of activities I have just described. That example is not the only such incident. I do not know about London politics, but last night’s Evening Standard reported:
“Plans by the Mayor's London Development Agency to build 180 homes in Crystal Palace Park will be decided by Communities Secretary Hazel Blears, it was announced today. Bromley council”,
which I understand is Conservative controlled,
“approved the plan to build in the Grade II-listed park last month. Boris Johnson added his support in spite of his election manifesto pledge to protect green spaces.”
I look forward to the winding-up speeches and to hearing the views of all parties on the debate. There are issues of significant substance that I hope the Minister will address, particularly the review and the need to back up those local authorities that try to protect the integrity of their garden spaces, many of which are still under threat, even in the current market downturn. I hope that he will take those remarks on board.
I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate and thank you, Mr. Olner, for allowing me to take part. We have to take a step back and remember what has been in place historically. People could always build in gardens and pieces of land within urban areas have been used for development. That historical agreement has always been in place and part of planning permissions, and local authorities took the ultimate decision on whether a piece of land was or was not appropriate for development. Of course, we all know that things changed when the Government began looking for more brownfield land to stop encroachment on greenfield areas. It was a difficult balance to strike, but in the end those decisions were taken.
In Chorley, we never had a worry: when the Labour authority gave up control, there was a complete moratorium. We did not have any building in gardens because we had so much planning development already agreed. In fact, we had one of the biggest brownfield sites to become available—1,200 acres of Royal Ordnance land. One can imagine what it does to an area when so much building land becomes available for development. We had all this building land and we knew that new town planning permissions would be granted, because Chorley was part of the old central Lancashire new town and there was historical planning consent on the land. The last thing we wanted was for more developers to come in and pick out land all over the place; that was why the moratorium was put in place.
What then happened was that the Labour-controlled council in Chorley left office and the Conservatives came in. The first thing they did was to lift the moratorium, which allowed a free-for-all. Any land in Chorley could be developed. Not only did we have an oversupply of building land, but it was being added to. Of course, cheap politics comes into it. I do not usually get into the gutter politics that seems to be happening in Chorley, but the candidate opposing me, Alan Cullens, put out a letter saying that I had allowed garden development in Chorley. What that Conservative candidate failed to do was even to state that he is a councillor, and a member of the council that has allowed development in gardens in Chorley. In his own area, developers have come along and bought up to seven gardens in order to create a large site for development. That will create 40 houses in back gardens and is a major development, but as it is in a good area that should be protected, even under the new legislation, I suggested to the council—through Labour councillors—that it should be a conservation area. That is still allowed, and it would not stop development in gardens, but the Conservative council said that it did not want to do that as it might cost money. What I would say about Councillor Cullens is that he is without doubt duplicitous—hypocrisy is the ultimate word for him—and that sending out a letter and not admitting that you are part of the problem that has been created in Chorley is very low politics.
We can do better, and we can do more. There is no doubt that the Conservative-led Chorley council has let the people of Chorley down. In the beautiful village of Mawdsley, two constituents wish to develop in their gardens for good reasons: they can no longer keep horses there and there is a tax on the animals. Yet the same council refuses them permission. The council has many questions to answer. My constituents in Mawdsley believe, rightly, that the council is being vindictive towards them. When it suits them, the council will support and allow developers to have free access to land, but in other areas they will not. This is a complete botch; it is hypocrisy. Chorley used to be the best-protected authority in the country, but all that was thrown out.
Councillor Cullens, and other councillors around the country who are making cheap points against Members of Parliament should be factual, truthful and honest.
Of course, it is my Government and my constituency. The hon. Gentleman obviously is not listening, so I will say it again and see whether he can understand this time. If there is a complete moratorium on building, no one can build in gardens. If the council lifts that moratorium, any developer can come in. Developers have always been allowed to build in gardens. That is the problem. Local authorities have to make decisions, but in Chorley there was no decision to make because of the moratorium. Once it was lifted, weakness was introduced. There is over-provision in Chorley, and the moratorium should never have been lifted.
I hope that the Minister will think long and hard about the position in Chorley. I agree with other hon. Members that we should have more social housing, but four and five-bedroomed houses are being built. There are crocodile tears from the local councillor and Conservative candidate, but he was part of the council that lifted the moratorium. Perhaps the Minister would like to comment on the hypocrisy of Councillor Cullens and the council in Chorley.
I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing this debate on a very important issue. I understand his concerns about garden-grabbing in Penzance. However, I take with a slight pinch of salt his claim that he did not want to spark a great party political dogfight in raising this issue. It seems to me that if he had wanted a party political dogfight, he could barely have done so more effectively. However, he raised some important concerns—I do not disagree with that.
On the substance of the issue, it is a question about quality of life, as the hon. Gentleman said, and the day-to-day enjoyment of residential areas, whether urban or rural, whether market towns or cities. In Oxford, it is difficult to build on the edge of our city, because the green belt is drawn too tightly and needs revising. There is also the economic and academic vitality of the city, which sucks in lots of jobs and students. The coupling of those two factors creates a pressure-cooker effect, so that there is enormous demand for housing within the city and buy-to-let has been a one-way bet for landlords for some time.
Residential areas that were originally planned with generous gardens and pleasant open spaces, inspired by garden city principles, have been under remorseless attack from infill, conversions to multiple occupation and even the exploitation of permitted development for ancillary buildings, such as garages and sheds, which then sprout windows, curtains and even bathrooms.
The presumption of higher densities within existing residential areas, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, is something that Governments of both main parties have been responsible for, can end up destroying those residential areas, as gardens are concreted over, corner plots are turned into flats and parking and refuse collection services are put under enormous strain, which the landlords who are carrying out the conversions are not making payments towards, as the hon. Gentleman also said.
I want to express warm thanks to my hon. Friend the Minister for coming to my constituency exactly a week ago to meet councillors and residents’ representatives, and to go round for himself to see a neighbourhood that has been transformed from one with good-quality housing, much of it social housing, into what is largely a student dormitory, with the most extraordinary extensions to properties. We looked at those extensions, which had been squeezed in, and also at neglected gardens, discarded rubbish and all the detritus of bad landlords, sitting cheek by jowl with the minority of original residents who take a pride in their property.
The purpose of that visit was to ensure that the Minister understood the overwhelming strength of the case for a licensing system for houses in multiple occupation to run right across Oxford—I think that he is getting the message from Oxford on this subject. As I said, I am grateful to him for coming and listening to us. However, there is a parallel need for stricter planning control and for councils to have more discretion to respond to the demands of their residents that they should be able to shape the nature of the residential community in which they live.
The right hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head. This issue is about local discretion for local councils. Under the current system local councillors’ hands are tied, whereas we should give those local decision-making powers back to local councils. If in some areas the council, for whatever reason, considers that garden developments are appropriate, it can go for them. Personally, I hope that in my area that would not be the view. However, if the decision-making powers are given back to local authorities, at least they can make the decisions locally about what is good for their area.
That is the point that I am making. These days, we all pretty much subscribe to the rhetoric of community empowerment; but if that rhetoric is to mean something on the issues that matter most to people, it must mean that they and their elected representatives should have more say on policies and planning decisions affecting their area, and that the inspectorate in Bristol, as an agent of the Secretary of State, should have less say. Of course, local authorities have to draw up those policies in a proper way, consulting with all relevant interests, and the policies must be applied consistently. That is not always easy with planning decisions. I used to chair a planning committee, many years ago, and I know that there are finely balanced judgments to be made.
Incidentally, I do not think that anybody is saying that no infill is ever acceptable or that no garden can be developed. The decision depends on the merits of the case. Indeed, I can point to some instances in my own constituency where development has been carried forward well and properly. The problem, when the planning system is too permissive and the overall policy is too centralised, is that it is too easy for developers and bad landlords to get away with too much. That is why we need regulation that is sensitive to the needs of the community.
The gardens, open spaces and trees in our urban areas act as lungs, and make areas look nice, so that people want to live there. They sustain ecological diversity and contribute something distinctive and positive to the quality of life of individuals and whole communities. The Government would do themselves and the country a great deal of good if they embraced the idea of giving stronger protection to gardens, as well as giving councils more power to decide when conversions to multiple occupation are appropriate, but with a comprehensive licensing system to police them where necessary, as it most certainly is in Oxford.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing this extremely important debate. The key issue is whether back gardens are designated as brownfield or greenfield areas. The Government have, to a degree, attempted to address that problem, and I welcome that. Following PPG3, the Government introduced PPS3, which gives local authorities some powers to separate gardens from wider brownfield development targets, but that does not stop developers, because local authorities can be overridden by external inspectors who do not have sympathy with or understanding of local areas, feelings and circumstances.
The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has kindly stayed to tell us that he is introducing a private Member’s Bill on this matter. I look forward to that, and I hope that it has more success than mine did in 2005. My neighbour, the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), introduced a similar Bill in 2007, as did the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) in 2006. I am encouraged to hear that Members of all three main parties are introducing such Bills. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives has discussed, although my private Member’s Bill encompassed parkland, the hon. Member for Meriden has declined to do the same with hers, because her local authority of Solihull, which we share, has sold off parkland for development in two parks—Tudor Grange and Shirley parks. That development involves the, to my mind, near criminal destruction of a 350-year-old ring of oaks.
The problem is holistic. The whole nature of areas is being changed by overdevelopment. The forthcoming Bill is very welcome, because in previous debates on this issue Labour Members have criticised attempts to change the designation, saying rightly that people need homes, including affordable homes, but selling off large back gardens in reasonably wealthy areas does not help to resolve that problem. Indeed, hon. Members have mentioned the careful building of particular numbers of dwellings so that the threshold at which affordable housing must be built is not exceeded.
Valuable wildlife corridors are being lost, and there is increased pressure on local amenities and increased flooding in many areas. Back gardens provide natural drainage, and having more houses puts too much pressure on sewerage and drainage systems that were never designed to service the number of families and properties that they now service. Hon. Members have mentioned the problems that are being created with roads and parking. Above all, perhaps, the whole character of local areas is being changed.
Is all that a big problem? The Government have stated that 72 per cent. of new homes are built on brownfield sites. Those welcome statistics show how that figure has increased over time. However, we need to look underneath them to see how much of that 72 per cent. is back garden development. The Government’s figures state that just less than a quarter of such properties are built on previously residential land, but that could be just the tip of the iceberg. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells carried out a study on this matter. According to the Government’s statistics, 40 per cent. of new housing is on existing residential sites and garden plots, but on investigation he found that the figure is closer to 70 per cent. That is a cause for great concern.
The picture is stark over many areas of the country. In my own area of Solihull we have just re-fought an application that keeps being made on Streetsbrook road for 10 apartments on two properties. We lost an appeal over Fowgay hall—admittedly, it was an unlovely property—on the site of which now stand 14 flats. It is a 0.17 acre plot, every inch of which has been built on, with the car park having to go underground. It is so out of kilter with the area that it beggars belief that it was approved on appeal. Builders wear down local communities by persistently reapplying. They make an application knowing that it will not be accepted. They then re-submit and re-submit, causing tremendous stress and worry in local communities, and in the end they slip in just under the bar. And that is the end of a happy residential area and, often, of its character.
The current economic situation might well have some bearing. The demand for flats has been slowing for a considerable period. However, more important, the construction industry is not on its knees but on its back. If the Minister were to introduce good, properly planned developments—not back garden grabs, but shovel-ready planning applications to build homes, especially affordable homes—he would certainly hear no objections from the Liberal Democrat Benches. PPS17 requires local authorities to provide all types of open spaces, including parks and gardens. We need properly planned communities. The Government should consider strengthening legislation to facilitate a much more holistic approach to our planning system. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives said, local communities need a much greater say in decisions affecting the character of their area.
I have three suggestions that I hope the Government will consider. On the ability of developers to continue re-submitting applications, should we not have a “three strikes and you’re out” system to prevent the constant worry?
I do not know; I leave that to the Government. For many communities, three will be a very welcome change. On one occasion, we had 19 in Solihull.
Could local authorities have more power to make a final determination? There is a problem with appeal officers looking at an area and going against the will of a large body of local opinion. We are not talking about nimbyism; what we really want is power to the people: subsidiarity—decision-making at the lowest point for the people who are affected. We understand that local authorities may make inappropriate decisions, but could the conditions for overturning those appeals be looked at again to take into consideration local people’s desire to have some say about the local environment in which they live?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate and on his comprehensive remarks—only soured somewhat at the end by a rather churlish coda, to which I shall return later.
The sad thing about the tenor of the debate is that there is so much consensus on the main issues, and to be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he generously alluded to the role that my hon. Friends the Members for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) have played in promoting private Members’ Bills and ten-minute Bills, and notwithstanding the efforts of the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt). We will hold the Government to account on their decision to instigate a review of garden grabbing. The Minister for Local Government said on 14 January in Hansard at column 768W that, following the Planning Bill, it would be undertaken and concluded shortly.
We concede that the Government have made some progress on the specific issues that Members have raised over the past few years, and that they have talked about the importance of local development plans and the issuance of supplementary planning guidance to protect gardens from overdevelopment and separate them from other types of brownfield land. It would be churlish not to support that. They also brought in PPS3 on housing in April 2007 and referred to the powers under part 2 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 in respect of local development documents. The Government’s attempt to strengthen strategic housing market assessments for local planning authorities is right, at least in theory, but as I shall make clear later, it is all very well doing that, but the reality is that planning applications are effectively decided by the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol, and under forthcoming legislation, by the regional development agencies.
I have two quick points. First, applications have always been decided in Bristol, and everyone already has the right to appeal on planning, whatever the planning issue is. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we take that away? It is an historic process. Secondly, does he not agree that we could always have used conservation areas to protect land?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s second point. I was going to say that the situation is exacerbated by the new proposals in legislation that will put unprecedented planning powers and other powers into the hands of regional development agencies. I hope that he will take his customarily robust attitude towards that legislation in Committee and on the Floor of the House.
It would be wise to refer to my colleagues’ commitment to the issue. It is fair to say that the Conservative party has had a strong and principled commitment to the issue over a significant period. The hon. Gentleman referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells and his Protection of Private Gardens (Housing Development) ten-minute Bill in 2006, which sought to remove front and back gardens from the Government’s definition of brownfield sites of previous development. He made the point that if the idea of brownfield sites was to mean anything, it should be about improving the condition of our towns and villages and contributing to environmental progress, not about changing and destroying the character of areas for ever. I think that there is general cross-party agreement on that.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who has strenuously denied a wish to be party political and claims merely to represent his constituents—[Interruption.] The point on which all parties agree is that there is insufficient local autonomy and authority for planning committees to make decisions in the best interests of their local communities. One has only to look at density and other targets effectively imposed by central Government through regional development agencies and regional spatial strategies. That is the key issue.
I will make some progress and let the hon. Gentleman intervene later.
The hon. Gentleman also made some generous comments about the Opposition day debate on garden development in June 2006, during which my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden argued for the reclassification of gardens under PPS3. She made the point that very little backland garden development results in affordable housing becoming available, because such development tends to take place in larger gardens in better areas of higher value.
My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden argued for greater planning powers to be devolved to local councils, especially in respect of density levels, and said that powers of reclassification should be given to local councils. That would not necessarily fetter planning authorities’ discretion to decide what was best for their local areas. Reference has also been made to her Land Use (Gardens Protection etc.) Bill of February 2007, and her ten-minute Bill, the Land Use (Garden Protection) Bill of February 2008. When speaking to the latter, she made the point that PPS3 focused on new-building gardens rather than conserving existing ones, and that housing and density targets rendered PPS3, in its new incarnation, effectively meaningless when set against local community planning policies. I think that we all agree with that—there is consensus between the Conservative Front Bench and the Liberal Democrats.
It is important to consider the lack of progress made by this Government in respect of the remediation of brownfield sites. If I am a little harsh on the Liberal Democrats, as I will be shortly, it is because they are quick to complain about homelessness, lack of housing stock and other issues, but when anyone proposes development of land for residential use, they are first in the queue against it. They cannot develop any arguments more complicated than can be put on an A4 “Focus” leaflet. The Minister has great experience of those with his erstwhile opponent in Hartlepool, Jody Dunn—whatever happened to her, one may ask.
To cut to the chase on the issue of Penwith district council, the hon. Gentleman either believes in local democracy and accountability or he does not. I made the point that Penwith’s planning committee has 15 members, and only six of them are Conservatives. All of them will declare any prejudicial interest in any planning application, and none of them will vote or take part in that debate, so is he really saying that the one Labour member, three independents and five Liberal Democrats are so stupid, so unable to consider the facts in front of them and so prone to making irregular decisions that they will not seek advice from officers or do the right thing for their local community, which is what they were elected to do? I ask that for a specific reason. In a press release issued on 30 January, the hon. Member for St. Ives commented:
“The Chairman and Vice Chairman of the local Planning Committee (Penwith District Council) are Conservatives”.
He does not name the individuals, and I would suggest that his insinuation is possibly libellous, given that he knows full well that they will not be voting or speaking.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the point. This is not a debate about the merits of the case, which is clearly a matter for the local planning committee. The relevance of the chairman and vice-chairman of the planning committee is simply that the residents want reassurance that the application will be considered on its merits. That is what I, as their MP, am seeking on their behalf. I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman is getting into the nitty-gritty of the make-up of the local planning committee. I agree that the matter will be determined at local authority level. What we are debating is the contrast between what the Conservatives have been saying in this Chamber and what they are doing on the ground with their headquarters and garden.
The hon. Gentleman raised a specific planning application in this Chamber, which I would say is inappropriate. It is certainly not a campaigning issue for Liberal Democrats locally. If he wishes to discuss garden and backland development in general, he will find that there is some cross-party consensus, but he has sought to politicise the issue for his own local reasons. I am simply drawing to hon. Members’ attention the fact that he is saying—I have no reason to disbelieve him; indeed, I believe it myself—that the autonomy and authority of the local planning authority are paramount and that the elected district councils in west Cornwall will make the right decisions for their communities. I deprecate the fact that he raised the issue and has even issued press releases about it.
I will certainly do that, Mr. Hancock.
I made it clear that I did not wish to politicise this debate. In 2007, I made it clear that I was prepared to overlook the fact that there was an application for development in the back garden of the Conservative headquarters. It was because the Conservatives changed their mind, having reassured the local community, that I am quite happy to see a political element in today’s debate. That is right and proper, given what has been said in recent years.
I accept your admonition, Mr. Hancock.
I think the hon. Member for St. Ives and the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench team have missed an opportunity to focus on what we have worked together on, certainly since 2006. We have worked together sensibly, and he has sponsored a Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden. We both believe that garden development needs to be re-examined so that we can protect gardens, and, which is more important, that there needs to be much stronger local control.
I can assure hon. Members that we have taken a principled stance. A Conservative Government will give stronger powers to local communities, and we look forward to the support of the diminished numbers of Liberal Democrats in the next Parliament. I look forward to the Minister’s remarks, and hope that he addresses the pertinent issues that have been raised today.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. Although I have enjoyed today’s debate, I have, at times, felt slightly uncomfortable. Watching the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats sparring was rather akin to watching a man and wife have a fierce row.
I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing this debate. He said at the start how lucky he was to secure the debate. I have to say that he seems to be incredibly successful in securing Adjournment debates. I recall responding to his debates on at least half a dozen occasions in respect of housing, planning and development. He serves his constituents extremely well and is extraordinarily knowledgeable about the situation. I also enjoyed the meeting that we had a week or two ago about second homes, which is an issue that really concerns him. I hope that we can have a follow-up meeting on that.
The issues raised today have been very well rehearsed, not least in Opposition day debates, on private Members’ Bills and during the passage of the Planning Act 2008. As has been mentioned several times, the debate is also very timely. We are shortly to make clear how we propose to begin a review of the evidence of the extent to which development of gardens is taking place. Today has been a good opportunity to hear views before we take our final decisions.
In the time that I have, I should like to do two things. First, I want to set out the existing policy and planning framework, which local authorities can deploy to restrict developments in gardens. Secondly, as I have alluded to, I want to outline our plans to review this matter to ascertain the precise nature, scale and incidence of the problem.
Let me start by talking about the existing policy framework. We have a robust planning framework in place to address so-called garden grabbing when it is considered to be a problem. The hon. Gentleman—because he is very knowledgeable about the matter—rightly put PPS3 at the heart of his argument. That guidance, which we published about two years ago, strengthened local authorities’ hand on the quality and design of their buildings and their effect on the neighbouring environment, and reinforced the need for all development to be in suitable locations. Let me cite a number of the parts of PPS3, which are very relevant to today’s debate.
Paragraph 38 gives local planning authorities more flexibility to determine how and where new homes should be built in their area. They also have greater responsibility to ensure that the homes are built. Paragraphs 14 and 16 make it clear that local authorities can put strong emphasis on urban and green space—those very much welcomed green lungs—which includes gardens, parks and play areas. Crucially, paragraph 43 also gives local planning authorities greater powers to have particular policies in their area, such as setting out the circumstances in which the proposed development on back-garden land may or may not be permitted. If I have time, I might cite a number of local authorities that have just done that and taken advantage of PPS3.
I also want to mention annexe B of PPS3, which gives local authorities a key power. It says:
“There is no presumption that land that is previously-developed is necessarily suitable for housing development nor”—
and this is the crucial bit—
“that the whole of the curtilage should be developed.”
In a nutshell, that demonstrates that local authorities are very much in the driving seat. Within their overall policy for the location of housing, they can decide how much reliance to place on previous residential sites, including gardens, as opposed to vacant and derelict sites.
The idea that has been hinted at today—that central Government are dictating to local authorities and telling them to consider infill on gardens—is simply wrong and misleading. As the hon. Member for St. Ives said, it is cheap party political point scoring of the lowest order, and it should be stopped. Central Government are not saying that; they are saying that local authorities have considerable autonomy and discretion to decide the plans and the framework that are suitable for their particular area.
Will the Minister concede that, if developers are making a value judgment on where to build a new development of houses and flats, it is easier for them to take the path of least resistance and build on green belt, rather than navigate the difficulties of remediation of brownfield which, as he will know, is divided between the Treasury, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? That difficulty predisposes developers to go for greenfield sites.
I will respond to that question in two ways. First, as I was going to say, back gardens are considered brownfield, not greenfield. Secondly, we have been extraordinarily successful in the past decade in ensuring that the brownfield first policy works. I think that the hon. Member for St. Ives mentioned our target of ensuring that 60 per cent. of all new development is on brownfield sites, but as the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) said, we are in the high 70s: about 76 or 77 per cent. of all new development is on those sites, so it has been a huge success.
I understand the hon. Gentleman when he talks about the line of least resistance, but all the evidence suggests that we have been successful in ensuring that previously developed land—brownfield land—is used first by developers.
Notwithstanding that, does the Minister agree that if the Government followed the proposal made by the Liberal Democrat and Conservative Front-Bench spokespersons and redefined gardens as greenfield rather than brownfield, they would provide local authorities with a mechanism by which to provide greater protection for gardens?
That brings me nicely to my next point about brownfield development. However, before I refer to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore)—he has a Second Reading of a private Member’s Bill on 8 May, I believe—I will give way to my hon. Friend, who wishes to intervene.
Does the Minister agree that money would be better spent on creating conservation areas to protect gardens rather than investing in Iceland, where Chorley has lost £2 million? The Minister may not believe this, but it is the truth: the councillor in charge of finance is Councillor Cullens, who intends to stand against me at the next election. On the one hand, he will not support conservation areas, but on the other he is happy to waste council tax payers’ money that was invested in Iceland in September. What does my hon. Friend think of that?
I am led by your direction on that, Mr. Hancock, but my hon. Friend made a strong point about conservation areas.
We had a debate in the House last night about parliamentary standards, and the idea that there is a lack of faith in our political process in this country concerns me. Certain parties, far from being do-nothing parties, say one thing when it suits them, and do another when that suits them, but that does not strengthen the political hand for any of us. Hypocrisy, which my hon. Friend’s opponent seems to be guilty of, should be avoided. It is wrong that we have such petty, small-minded, misleading and disingenuous campaigns, which the hon. Member for St. Ives highlighted.
I am sure that you want me to talk about brownfield land, Mr. Hancock, and how it could be defined. As I said, PPS3 makes it clear that the status of a site as brownfield brings no presumption that it must be developed for housing. Local planning authorities should prioritise brownfield land wherever possible, as I said, by identifying suitable sites. However, if sites cannot be identified, there is still no obligation to grant applications for development in back gardens. Local authorities can set local brownfield targets to reflect available sites, and to support and enhance the national target to build at least 60 per cent. of new homes on brownfield land. This is important in the context of what we have been debating today. Local planning authorities can set separate targets for different sorts of brownfield land, where appropriate, to give them more flexibility to shape new developments to meet the needs of their local area—including addressing the point about development in gardens where that is considered to be a local problem.
The key consideration is not whether a site is brownfield, but whether it is suitable for housing development—that it is a suitable area that will contribute to the creation of sustainable mixed communities. The Government’s position is that local planning authorities are the best judges of that, taking into account their specific circumstances and needs. Garden land development should therefore be judged locally as to whether it is conducive to sustainable mixed communities. There is no diktat from central Government—far from it—but an insistence that local authorities should judge this, in consultation with their local residents.
The Government’s position, in advance of the review findings, is that it would be wrong to deny local authorities the flexibility to set planning policies and take planning decisions based on their knowledge of areas. Wherever possible, that is our preferred approach in line with improving local democracy and accountability. We should continue to allow planning authorities to make judgments based on the knowledge of their own area, through the development of local policies and taking decisions on planning applications. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Peterborough (Stewart Jackson) acknowledge that considerable progress had been made over the past couple of years on strengthening local development frameworks. That is somewhat at odds with his stance on how we are moving everything towards a regional spatial strategy, but I welcomed his sentiments.
I welcome what the Minister says about its being the Government’s intention that local authorities should have maximum discretion in determining these policies. However, I hope that he will acknowledge that occasionally, on appeal, there is conflict between what planning inspectors feel to be enforceable and what local authorities believe stands up. The Government should look at this issue again. Local authorities believe that they have discretion to act in a certain way, taking into account conditions such as the number of affordable homes in a development, and then have difficulty persuading the planning inspector that their policy should have some force.
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) said, appeals are an historic part of the planning process, and no one wants to get rid of what is perceived to be natural justice. If a local authority has a robust local development framework in place and it is tested through appeal, it will be in a strong position.
In the hon. Gentleman’s own area, the North Cornwall district local plan contains the following text—I believe that it is called HSG 3—to support its policy on intensification of residential use:
“Restricting the subdivision of large garden plots therefore retains the environmental quality of these areas.”
So there is an idea that the council wants to strengthen it as much as possible. Brentwood’s replacement local plan of 2005, for example, has specific policies reflecting local circumstances that any new development should reflect the character and density of the surrounding area and shall have minimum net plot sizes and minimum building line frontages.
I do not wish to be party political about this, but the London borough of Bromley—which is not yet the socialist republic of Bromley—has the following text regarding housing density and design policy. It is worth quoting to show what local authorities can do, and how they can be in the driving seat in this regard. It says:
“Backland development, including development of land surrounded by existing properties, often using back gardens and creating a new access, will generally also be resisted. Private gardens can be of great importance in providing habitats for wildlife, particularly in urban areas. Except in Areas of Special Residential Character, such development, however, may be acceptable provided it is small-scale and sensitive to the surrounding residential area. Lower residential densities than those outlined in table 4.2 will usually be required and there should be adequate access. Additional traffic should not cause an unacceptable level of disturbance to neighbouring properties, and a high standard of separation and landscaping should be provided.”
That provides robust analysis and evidence to ensure that planning applications can be brought forward in that context—something that is important and places local authorities very much in the driving seat.
I do not have time today to move to the second part of my contribution, relating to the review promised by my right hon. Friend in respect of the deliberations on the Planning Act, but I will write to those hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. It is an important point. Let me reassure—