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Garden Development

Volume 504: debated on Tuesday 26 January 2010

2. What representations he has received from local authorities on the outcome of his Department's review of garden and infill development; and if he will make a statement. (312949)

8. What recent discussions he has had with local authority representatives on steps to reduce the level of infill development of gardens. (312955)

The Government have received no representations to date from local authorities on the outcomes of the review that I announced on 19 January.

Does the Minister accept that many local councils feel that planning policy statement 3 is just not working when it comes to garden grabbing? Is he aware that councils such as Lichfield find that the city is changing shape simply by virtue of the fact that lovely open areas and big gardens are being redeveloped? What changes can he make to PPS3 to stop this unhelpful practice?

I do not accept that and, more importantly, the independent research from Kingston university that I published on Tuesday last week did not accept it. I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the report, because it confirms that the problem is not widespread or national, and that local authorities already have the power to take steps to prevent development on garden land, if they choose. They are also able to reinforce their position if the matter goes to appeal.

For some months now, I have been working with Susan Fox from Longton in my constituency who has been campaigning against inappropriate developments in gardens and infill plots in her village. I have always told her that it is up to the Tory council in South Ribble to determine what happens, and she was planning to ask me to present a petition to Parliament. May I ask my right hon. Friend to restate the fact that the Tories on South Ribble council could, if they got their act together, put in place a planning policy to deal with the issue? There is no reason to blame the Government.

Indeed, and my hon. Friend may want to send the council copies of my statement to the House last Tuesday and of the Kingston university report. He may also want to draw attention to the fact that I have made it clearer in PPS3 that there is no presumption that previously developed land such as garden land will be appropriate for development. It therefore rests with local authorities to put in place a proper local plan that can cover concerns about garden land. It is for them to make the decisions, and to protect people against unwelcome development.

Infill is a problem, but so too is the situation in which a builder buys three or four houses with large gardens and replaces them with 30 to 40 flats, as has happened in Bassett in the Southampton part of my constituency. Local development plans have no influence, especially when it comes to appeals, so what can the Government do to protect areas against having their character ruined?

The hon. Lady is wrong on two counts. The independent research by the university confirms that, in four out of five cases, the planning inspectorate backs the local authority on appeal. It also says that local authorities are in a stronger position if they have in place their own local plan covering garden land. If the developer has gone ahead in the way that she describes, that is because the council has not put in place what it could and should have put in place.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a degree of bullying going on in areas such as the Bradford district? A person buys a detached house with a very large and sometimes beautiful garden but the neighbours object at the planning stage and so permission is refused. The owner of the house then allows it to go to wrack and ruin—I know two houses that are in a deplorable state—in the hope that the neighbours will then beg the local authority to give planning permission for the development to get rid of the eyesore that they have had wished on them.

The problem that my hon. Friend describes is slightly different from the one we studied in the research report. Local authorities have some fall-back powers to deal with extreme cases of the sort that she has described. If she would like me to, I shall write to her with details of those powers.

The Minister is simply in denial about how his policies give a green light for garden grabbing. Does he agree with the assertion that

“national planning policy guidance has made it difficult to resist development proposals on garden land, even where there is a detrimental impact on local character, and that this imbalance needs to be rectified”?

They are not my words, but those of the Secretary of State’s own council.

I know that the hon. Lady and some of her hon. Friends have pressed this case very hard over the past couple of years, but the research and the facts do not bear out her assertion or her concerns. This is a problem in some areas, but they are clearly in the minority. It is also clear, as the report confirms, that councils have the powers to deal with such matters where they present a problem for neighbours and are unwelcome in the local area.

Why cannot Ministers just admit that the blight of garden grabbing is the fault of this Labour Government? The Government, not councils, made gardens count as brown field for planning purposes. Is it not time for change—time councils had proper powers to protect neighbourhoods from inappropriate developments?

The hon. Lady is wrong again. The definition she takes issue with was set in 1985 and has not been changed since. It was reconfirmed in one of the Conservative Government’s Green Papers and in planning guidance in 1988, and again in 1992. That is not the problem.

The problem, I am afraid to say, is councils that have the powers but will not accept the responsibility of taking the decisions to protect local people and defending those decisions on appeal. If they had proper local plans in place, their hand would be strengthened in doing so. The hon. Lady would do better to address her concerns to her own councils, which are falling far short of what local residents expect of them.

There are a lot of crocodile tears from the Opposition about garden grabbing. May I give my right hon. Friend the facts on Chorley? In Lancaster lane, Whittle and Shaw Hill, garden grabbing has taken place. The first thing the Conservative council did when it was elected was lift the moratorium that gave protection in relation to all house building in the Chorley area. Does he not agree that it was duplicitous and wrong of the council to blame the Government, for it was the council itself that lifted the moratorium on house building?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point that illustrates precisely the general point that I am making: it is in the hands of local councils to decide local priorities, make local decisions and, in his case, demonstrate the difference in approach between a Labour and a Conservative local council in Chorley.