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Urban Planting

Volume 531: debated on Tuesday 19 July 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Dunne.)

Last Thursday, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government visited Colchester, at my invitation, to see for himself the wonderful open setting of fields to the west of Mile End, which have been earmarked for a huge housing development of in excess of 2,200 dwellings. If it goes ahead, it will be a planning and environmental disaster. No amount of green planting in the urban environment to replace this natural area of great beauty could compensate for what mother nature and good agricultural husbandry over the centuries have created.

After visiting the north of the town, I took the Secretary of State to a big brownfield development at the former Colchester garrison on the site of the Victorian Cavalry barracks, a short distance to the south of the town centre. It is an excellent development, but it could have been even better with more green planting and fewer areas of hard paving. I would like to see some of the latter ripped up and replaced with trees, shrubs and flowers. The Minister responding to my debate this evening has also indicated an interest in visiting the development, so I look forward to showing him around in due course. Before referring further to it, I wish to conclude my remarks about the planning disaster that confronts the people of Mile End and to ask the Minister to discuss with his boss and departmental officials how it can be stopped—or, at the very least, greatly reduced so as to minimise the environmental loss of an attractive part of the north Essex countryside. In my opinion, it matches the area of outstanding natural beauty—the designation given to Constable country, Dedham Vale—only a few miles away.

The problem goes back to the policies of the last Labour Government: core strategies, regional spatial strategies, local development frameworks and so forth. Local democracy never had a look in. Although there has been a change of Government, Colchester borough council is proceeding with the policies of the last Government rather than adapting to those of the new coalition Government. There is huge local opposition from the community of Mile End and its elected representatives. That is particularly true of Myland community council, a grass-roots council that represents an area in the north of Colchester whose population is set to quadruple over a very few years.

Mile End, the correct geographic name for this part of my constituency where I grew up, has already experienced huge development in recent years, with another 2,000-plus homes already agreed on the former Severalls hospital site—and that is before another 2,200 on the fields that the Secretary of State viewed last week from the upstairs window of a couple whose home overlooks the national award-winning Cants of Colchester rose gardens, which faces being submerged under a sea of concrete.

If “localism” is to mean what it says, I implore the Minister to do what he can to retrieve the situation. It is a huge mystery to the local community how the developers, Mersea Homes, have managed to get this project so far forward. As I have said in the House previously, it is not just that council officers and the company are singing from the same song sheet; they are the joint composers of the song.

Today's Colchester Daily Gazette reports that the population of the borough grew by 4,000 last year. It is the fourth fastest-growing borough in the country, and the population has now topped 181,000. Last year, an average of nearly two new homes were completed every day. In the last nine years the population of Colchester has grown by 25,000, at a rate twice the national average. It cannot go on like this. We need our green lungs, our green open spaces. Brownfield sites must take precedence over greenfield sites, and our existing urban areas need green planting, not just new developments.

I am grateful to the Horticultural Trades Association—through its backing of the Greening the UK campaign—for helping me with my speech. Further thanks go to Keep Britain Tidy and the Woodland Trust, which also contacted me to make helpful points.

Quite simply, planting and green spaces are not only beneficial but vital for the urban environment where the majority of this country's population live, but there are problems. Evidence shows that over the last 10 years the level of planting and green landscaping proposed for new developments has decreased by up to 50%. Moreover, the amount of planting delivered on new developments is substantially less than that promised during the planning process. It is well documented that a decline in planting leads to increased environmental problems, such as more flooding as rainwater runs off rather than being absorbed and more CO2 emissions. That trend must be reversed.

Research shows that building projects with high levels of planting involve 52% fewer crimes, that hospital recovery rates can improve when planting is visible, and that workplace productivity can increase where there is visible greenery. The former Trebor sweet factory in Colchester was designed to enable members of the work force to look out on greenery.

The hon. Gentleman has referred to the Woodland Trust. In my constituency, the trust has been involved in a project with local schools. Children at the schools planted trees and then became their custodians, looking after them. There had been vandalism in the past, but there was no more after that, because those responsible became part of the community. Does the hon. Gentleman think that something similar could be done in his area?

The hon. Gentleman has made a good point. The Woodland Trust does good work throughout the United Kingdom, and it is important for communities, especially young people, to be involved in it.

Planting and soft landscaping help to provide cleaner air for often busy and polluted urban environments, and maintain vital habitats for endangered or rare species. A good example is the Laban dance centre in Greenwich, whose green “rubble” roof has led to the return of the black redstart to the area. Colchester’s new magistrates court should be mentioned in this context. It is an ugly building, but its ugliness will hopefully be masked by plants growing over it.

Plants help to mitigate climate change by absorbing CO2 and PM10 emissions. Planting helps communities to adapt to climate change by directing excess rainwater into the ground rather than diverting it into overworked drainage systems, thus reducing the surface water flooding which is a particular problem for our larger towns and cities. An example is the use of rain gardens advocated by Snohomish County in the state of Washington in the United States, where there is a very high level of rainfall. Acting like a native forest, a rain garden collects, absorbs and filters storm water run-off from roof tops, driveways, streets and other impervious surfaces. Planting helps to prevent river flooding by reducing soil erosion and stabilising river banks.

Many of those facts were recognised in the natural environment White Paper that the Government published last month. The White Paper highlights the benefits of urban green space, which provides links with the national ecological framework, and leads to reductions in crime and to social and health benefits. It states that decision makers neither understand nor take into account the economic and social values of nature in an urban environment because of concerns about management costs and risks, and that a green infrastructure partnership will be established to support the development of green infrastructure in England.

Several local authorities have excellent records on improving planting and protecting green spaces, and are working hard to protect and enhance the extent of green spaces and planting in their towns and cities. One example is the restoration by Devon county council of the main square in Barnstaple, with grassed areas, semi-mature trees and planting, making the most of the local mild micro-climate as part of the scheme. I should remind the House of my wild flower meadows debate on 18 May 2005, and specifically the new wild flower meadows at Cymbeline meadows and High Woods country parks in Colchester. High Woods has been awarded a green flag by Keep Britain Tidy.

Many councils feel powerless to enforce green planting regimes that have been promised by developers. That could be as much a result of lack of resources in the local authority as it is of not being aware of the issues involved in the problem. However, with a valuation of £2.3 billion placed on urban green spaces by the national ecosystem assessment report, it is crucial for developers to be obliged to provide more natural areas in new housing developments. With cuts to spending at local level becoming increasingly obvious, it is feared that planting could fall to the bottom of a local authority’s priorities.

The Local Government Group’s report published earlier this month on health and spatial planning states that planting is important, as good green space helps to improve social interaction, mental health and social behaviours. Planting in the urban environment is important not just because it is nice to look at, however, but because it can help both local authorities and developers achieve Government targets. Research by the Building Research Establishment backs that up. It has shown that in order for developers to reach level 6 of the code for sustainable homes, which is important in reaching the Government’s 2016 target of zero-carbon homes, it will be important to involve landscaping and planting.

The Greening the UK campaign told me that research at the university of Reading’s school of horticulture has demonstrated how plants help keep buildings cool in hot weather and insulate them against cold weather, thereby reducing the need for internal heating. I therefore urge the Government to include planting as part of the code for sustainable homes.

I commend the coalition Government on various programmes they are undertaking, such as the big tree plant. By the way, I grow trees. I have grown several hundred over the years. In 2009, I planted a young oak sapling at the Eden project from an acorn from Gilwell park, the headquarters of Scouting, to mark the centenary of Scouting in 2007.

For all the images of a green and pleasant land, the UK remains one of the least wooded countries in Europe, with only 13% woodland cover compared with the European average of 44%. The Woodland Trust told me:

“We need more native trees and woods in urban areas for a variety of reasons encompassing public health, flood alleviation, reduction of the ‘urban heat island effect’, increased wildlife and the creation of a more attractive environment within which to live, work and spend leisure time, thereby creating an environment which is also attractive for inward investment.”

Urban planting is not just a “nice to have”. We need a more systematic approach to the issue. That was enshrined in Liberal Democrat party policy in 2009, when during the autumn conference I moved an amendment calling for an increase in the provision of urban planting and green spaces in all new developments through better use of the planning system, including increased powers for planning authorities and improved guidance to local authorities. I urge the coalition Government to embrace that policy. This approach would allow systemic measures to be put in place through the planning system. It would also help local authorities monitor the creation of those promised new green spaces and planting that we all value so highly, while ensuring that planning agreements are fully enforced.

I also want new greening to be introduced into existing urban communities. The Greening the UK campaign has been working closely for several years with local authorities to raise the profile of urban planting. About 10 local authorities, including Liverpool, Boston and Lambeth, have adopted a motion to this effect, adapted to the needs of their own area. I hope my own town of Colchester will do so as well. In order to make a real difference around the country, I would like the coalition Government to be even more supportive of urban planting. A tree that I and my two councillor ward colleagues planted outside the Artilleryman public house in Artillery street, Colchester, in 1973-74 is flourishing.

The Minister is very supportive of urban planting. Indeed, he wrote the following in the foreword to the Greening the UK campaign’s report in 2010:

“Urban green spaces provide much needed oases in the midst of developed areas—and can greatly improve the quality of town and city life. When planned and delivered properly, they can enhance biodiversity, reduce overheating, increase energy and help to prevent flooding. But more importantly than that, they can bring people together in a pleasant environment. Good planting and landscaping have the power to transform the way we feel about ourselves, our neighbours and the places in which we live and work.”

I commend him for those wise words. Can he tell the House this evening how planting will be included in the national planning framework? Will he recognise the importance of planting and landscaping when allowing developers to achieve level 6 of the code for sustainable homes? Will planting be included as a requirement in the code?

As a slight diversion I wish to make it clear, for the avoidance of doubt, that I am opposed to the new generation of nuclear power stations, particularly the one at Bradwell-on-Sea, in Essex.

In conclusion, I hope that this final Adjournment debate before the summer recess will not be ignored and that we will be able to leave the House this evening with a commitment from the Minister to take forward a programme of policies for green planting in the urban environment.

It is a delight to be able to respond to the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), and I congratulate him on securing it. He spoke with the characteristic passion that he brings to this subject. I am immensely flattered that he not only reads my forewords, but brings them to the House to quote from them: if I may say so, I could not have put it better myself.

My hon. Friend will know that the issue of greening has been close to my heart for many a long year. When I was a new Back Bencher, I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill, which became a private Member’s Bill, to change the designation of back gardens as brownfield sites in order to allow local authorities to protect them. I did not want local authorities to be obliged to allow their redevelopment because they were in the same planning category as genuinely derelict industrial land, old railway sidings and gas works. That designation was having huge unintended consequences across the country—I say “unintended” but I fear that perhaps it did have a purpose in the minds of the Ministers who introduced it. Local people were certainly mystified that the environment in their local area that they cherish most, and which is greener than many other areas that enjoy green protection, was ripe for development and had no protection. One of the great pleasures for me of coming into government in the coalition Government was being able, as Minister, to change the national planning guidance to reclassify gardens in order to make it clear that they are not brownfield sites. I wanted the determination on gardens to be made by local people, through their local councillors, and I wanted gardens to be protected, if necessary.

The reasons for taking that approach were absolutely the ones that my hon. Friend set out. Green urban spaces, including private gardens, parks and places where trees and other greenery are planted in towns, make a disproportionate contribution to our ecology. The opportunity to preserve and, indeed, enhance bird life in our urban areas is advantaged by the pockets of green space that we have in what otherwise would be concrete deserts for wildlife. It is therefore especially important that we examine our urban environment and, first, stop, as we have, the depressing trend to concrete over back gardens and front gardens—we need to call a halt to that. I completely agree with him that we should seek not only to arrest the decline, but to repopulate our city centres with greenery so that they can, once again, be the areas of delight that have attracted people to live there over the years.

One of our national characteristics is that our towns and cities are greener than most of those in continental countries, which often have a much denser urban design scheme imposed. If one thinks of an English town—or, I dare say, one in any part of the United Kingdom—one thinks of greenery, especially at this time of year. I fully support the purpose of what my hon. Friend is seeking to bring to the attention of the House.

My hon. Friend is right that the planning system is integral. The purpose of planning is to help to achieve sustainable development, and he alluded to the fact that the question of sustainability obviously has not only an environmental aspect but an economic and social aspect. Our cities and towns will not only be more beautiful but are liable to be more prosperous if they are places where people can live comfortably and in which, if they work there, their health, happiness and well-being are enhanced. On the social aspects of sustainability, if people live and work in areas that are beautiful and green and in which there are places where they can take their leisure, the antisocial behaviour that is too often characterised by a hyper-urban un-green environment is less prevalent. The research to which my hon. Friend referred bears that out.

Our ambition is the same and we share the view that our environment can be better than it is. My hon. Friend mentioned the White Paper on the natural environment that the Department produced recently, and it is a groundbreaking paper in the sense that it moves beyond taking simply a defensive view of the natural environment that states that we should try to halt its destruction. The White Paper makes it very clear that this Government’s ambition should be to enhance our environment, because, frankly, it could be better looked after than it is. Paragraph 2 states:

“The Government wants this to be the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited.”

That is a theme that should run through all Government policy and nothing would achieve that more than the points that my hon. Friend makes.

Let me say a little about what can be done to achieve such improvements. The planning system can play a very important role. My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that the planning system we have inherited has taken us away from sustainability, and we have mentioned the inclusion of gardens in the definition of brownfield sites. In general, however, the top-down approach with tightly imposed housing targets that were not set by local people who have knowledge of the local area but handed down by unelected regional bodies so that democratically elected bodies, such as district councils, had simply either to accommodate them or to have their plans rewritten by inspectors, resulted in people fearing, quite reasonably, that their local environment, which they cherished, was being changed without any involvement on their part and by people with no knowledge of it.

The views of the people of Mile End, whose area is being ravaged by massive development, are being ignored, in effect. I was hoping that the Minister might be able to address that, because councillors across the borough have ganged up, as one could say, and put all the borough’s housing in one location, which is not fair on that community.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I was going to say that he knows that the Localism Bill, which was debated extensively in this House and is now with their lordships, makes wholesale changes to the planning system, the purpose of which is to give local neighbourhoods the right to have their say and not to be set aside. That is the heart of localism—that local people should be involved from the outset in such decisions, as is common on the continent. In my experience, the best developments and the best authorities are those that take into account the views of the local population.

However, there is a constraint. Until a new law is passed, the old law remains in effect. Tempting though it might be to rule by decree from day one of taking office, we have been advised—and on occasion the courts have required us—to complete the passage through Parliament of the Localism Bill before, for example, we can revoke finally the regional spatial strategies that are part of the problem and which contain the imposed numbers that local communities find alien to them.

We are making all haste with the Bill. As my hon. Friend knows, it was one of the earliest Bills that was introduced. It is a substantial Bill. We moved heaven and earth to make sure that it was part of the Government’s early package of legislation. It is making good progress. Its intentions have enjoyed a degree of consensus in the House. Even the official Opposition now recognise that the regional apparatus and the regional strategies are not the way forward, so there is a strong consensus in favour of a more localist approach. Unless and until the Bill is enacted, which I hope will not take too long, the frustrations that my hon. Friend describes will continue for what I hope will be just a few more months.

I hope local people are already preparing for the new world that is about to dawn. The Bill includes neighbourhood planning. On the possibility of projecting a vision for the future in their communities, the Bill gives every neighbourhood the chance to put together a local plan which for the first time will have teeth. It will become part of the development plan if a majority of the local population in that neighbourhood vote for it and it is found to be a sound and reasonable plan. The ability to adopt a neighbourhood plan will come with the Localism Bill and its commencement.

I hope communities such as the one in Mile End described by my hon. Friend are already thinking about the shape of their neighbourhood plan and beginning to do some of the research and the consultations. I am looking forward to my visit to Colchester, and after the debate I will be happy to get in touch with my hon. Friend to see whether some of the communities in his constituency might want to work with my Department and become front runners for some of the neighbourhood planning provisions so that they can have a head start and other communities around the country can learn from that. I hope they will be on the starting grid, ready to move as soon as the powers come in.

As my hon. Friend knows, there was a commitment, which was initially promoted by our hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), to introduce a designation for valued community green space that should be available to communities to protect. There have been some problems with the village green procedures and definitions, but we have made a commitment to consult on a designation that can be part of local and neighbourhood plans, and we will be consulting on that shortly. We know that green spaces are incredibly important to local life. We are committed to protecting them, but the people who can best identify them are not Ministers or officials in central Government but the people living in those communities who know what is needed there.

Given the importance of green spaces to the health and happiness of local communities, I hope my hon. Friend’s communities are already thinking about the green spaces that they may want to avail themselves of the opportunity to list, to give them greater confidence in the future. There are various other rights in the Localism Bill, including the right to identify land that is of community value, so that if it is ever sold and has been in community use, the community will have the chance to make a bid to take it over and keep it in community use.

My hon. Friend mentioned the big tree plant campaign, and I am glad that he personally takes part in it. As ever with these things, he has pre-empted what has become coalition policy by having his own personal commitment to it. Significant progress has been made: 100,000 trees have been planted in the first six months and we know, here in central London, how tree planting softens the urban environment.

Many steps are being taken. Planning is key, but I hope that some of the reforms I have mentioned and some of the approaches that we are taking to protect green space, to empower communities and to make better use of that green space will encourage my hon. Friend and his constituents and show that we have already made some progress. The change regarding gardens is a big step in that direction and the tree planting is another. With the enactment of the Localism Bill will come new rights that cannot be taken away from local communities.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to speak on a subject that I feel as passionately about as my hon. Friend, and I take this opportunity to wish you, Mr Speaker, and all Officers of the House, as well as our colleagues, a very happy and enjoyable summer break.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.