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Green Belt (England)

Volume 533: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Goodwill.)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Crausby. The number of Members attending this debate shows concern about the future of our green belt among not only our constituents but Members. As individuals, we understand and accept the importance of the green belt and the need to ensure that it is not only protected but enhanced.

At the outset, I will make what some might call a declaration of interest, although it is not. It is important to put on the record that my partner—that is the appropriate word, although it is one I do not particularly like to use—is a director of Persimmon and sits on its board. He would be first to agree that I have never been in anybody’s pocket, and much as he may try to suggest otherwise, he continues to exert little, if any, influence in my life, or control over it. It is important to make that declaration, however, given that allegations were made yesterday about the Conservative party being in the pocket of donors and developers. Nevertheless, the fact that so many Conservative Members are attending the debate this morning shows that we are our own people and speak on behalf of our constituents.

As hon. Members will appreciate, the green belt has a long and noble history. It was first developed in London in 1938, and Birmingham and Sheffield later took up that good idea. In 1955, the then Government urged all towns and cities to create green belts—bands of land around their environs designed specifically to restrict urban growth. Today, our green belts are more than just that; they are our green lungs and open spaces enjoyed by all. They are loved, cared for and valued by communities throughout England and no doubt in Wales—there is only one green belt in Wales—and Scotland. Today, however, we are discussing the green belt in England, because of the various concerns that have been raised about Government policy.

Particularly nowadays, the green belt defines communities, because it halts urban growth and maintains the identity of towns, villages and cities. My constituency provides a good example of how losing part of the green belt can lead to the sort of urban sprawl that it was deemed right to restrict in the 1930s, and which I believe should continue to be restricted. A person driving along the A6005, the road from Nottingham to Long Eaton in Derbyshire, will pass through communities such as Beeston, Chilwell and Toton, but they may not realise that they have left the city council boundary and entered my constituency and the area of Broxtowe borough council. Almost without break, there are only housing developments along the way. Many hon. Members will have similar examples in their constituencies of where the loss of the green belt has led to an unacceptable urban sprawl.

In Broxtowe, one can also see where the green belt has brought profound benefits to many communities. Along the B600, for example, Nuthall is desperately trying to retain its identity and not become part of the urban sprawl, even though that has already happened in part. The village of Watnall is keen to retain its identity along with that of Kimberley, but it is increasingly seeing the encroachment of urban sprawl. As one leaves Watnall, however, one sees the most beautiful stretch of countryside. I was born and bred in Nottinghamshire, so I feel qualified to say that although parts of my county do not contain the most beautiful pieces of countryside, where there are areas of beauty, we value and love them more. The area outside Watnall is particularly beautiful, and if hon. Members want to see a photograph of it, I urge them to visit my website. It is an historic and ancient piece of land, and those familiar with the writings of D. H. Lawrence will recognise the Moorgreen reservoir, which lies outside the boundaries of my constituency. That stretch of land, which undulates as it leads up to Greasley with St Mary’s church in the distance, is beautiful. Even more importantly, however, it defines that area of Watnall from the top of my constituency—Greasley, Moorgreen and Newthorpe, which many would say are unfortunately sprawled together. That stretch of green belt land perfectly illustrates why we must continue to protect our green belt, and why we must ensure that we do not allow development on it, and certainly not on the scale proposed in my constituency.

I do not have anything other than green belt in my constituency, because there is no greenfield land. I do not wish to insult any of the lobby groups that have made representations to this House or newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph, which has launched a campaign, but there has been a lack of understanding about the important distinction between greenfield land and green belt land. Green belt land has always been specially protected, and the Government are determined that it will continue to enjoy that protection. It marks the land out as special and different from greenfield land, which does not enjoy such protection. There has been a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of that profound distinction.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her comments so far and entirely agree with them all. However, as the representative of a constituency that has no green belt land but vast acreage of green fields, I do not necessarily agree that green belt land should be given special preference over greenfield land. We ought to protect our countryside, green and pleasant as it is, irrespective of whether it is green belt land or greenfield.

My hon. Friend speaks with great passion on that issue, but this debate is about the green belt, and I hope he will forgive me if I continue to highlight the appallingly named draft national planning policy framework. All hon. Members, whatever party they come from, will agree that one problem with planning is the abundance of jargon. If ever an offence were to be created it could perhaps be that of the overuse of jargon and terminology that is completely lost on most ordinary people. I congratulate the Government, however, on specifically writing a document in plain English. Let us have more of that when it comes to planning. Our green belt deserves special protection. I hear my hon. Friend’s desire to protect his green fields, but green belt land is different, because it exists specifically to protect communities and prevent urban sprawl.

What has led to the situation in my constituency and the proposal to build up to 4,000 homes on the green belt in the most densely populated borough in the county, if not the east midlands? There are brownfield sites in my constituency, but enough for only 2,000 houses. The borough council has accepted a target of almost 6,000 homes, and the green belt is the only place where they can be built. I am opposed to that, and believe that I represent the overwhelming majority of my constituents in that opposition. It is a peculiar situation, given that the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Leader of the House and every Minister I have met who is concerned about planning policy, has made it clear, in questions, speeches and so on, that the Government do not intend to alter the special protection afforded to our green belt. All hon. Members will agree that that is the right and proper thing to do.

As you see, Mr Crausby, my copy of the draft national planning policy framework is well thumbed, but pages 38 and 39 contain Government statements on the special need to continue to protect our green belt:

“The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts…Once Green Belts have been defined, local planning authorities should plan positively to enhance the beneficial use of the Green Belt… Inappropriate development is, by definition, harmful to the Green Belt and should not be approved except in very special circumstances.”

On page 40, paragraph 144 states:

“A local planning authority should regard the construction of new buildings as inappropriate in Green Belt.”

Unfortunately, my council plans to build or to allow the development of some 4,000 new buildings on my local green belt.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Are not the principles established under the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 of creating the green belt, protecting the countryside and, most importantly, creating the lungs for our cities as vital today as they were in 1947?

The Prime Minister and others have made it clear that there will be no change to the special protection afforded to the green belt. It is unfortunate that there has been a high level of scaremongering. If we believe what has been said by the Prime Minister and his Ministers—no doubt this Minister will give us yet more assurances—that does not square with the notion that our green belt is in any way under threat. I stress again that we are talking about the green belt. Unfortunately, it is under threat in my constituency, and I believe that it is in many other constituencies across the country.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but does she agree that her constituency is fortunate to have a green belt? Many of us represent constituencies that do not have one. In my constituency, the city of Southampton, a very large city, has no green belt whatever. That puts the green fields on the edge of the city, which separate it from villages such as Nursling, Rownhams and Chilworth, under extreme stress.

I absolutely understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but the great joy, as I see it, in the policy as outlined in the document that we are discussing is that it will enable communities to come together and work together to consider how best they can encourage growth and development in their areas. The two are not incompatible. I shall move on to a good example of sustainable development.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate and on the powerful case that she is making. She has mentioned the word “sustainable”. Would she, like me, welcome from the Minister today a statement that the presumption in favour of sustainable development, which has attracted so much interest, is overridden by green belt policy and should play no part in green belt policy and that the protection for the green belt will remain as strong as it was under the existing policy, if not stronger?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend when he makes that point with such passion, but in some communities people may be content to have development on their green belt. That may be what they wish, if they see the benefit in their area. That is the beauty of this document, combined with the Localism Bill. That will enable communities to form their own neighbourhood plans, which may lead in turn to development on their green belt. In my opinion, if that is what communities want, that is what they should get. Sustainable development and some building on the green belt are not completely in opposition.

I argue that in my constituency we are in a different position, because we have so little green belt, which has been eroded by development over the years. If people look at a map of my constituency, they will see the spaces between the city and the communities that make up my constituency, which have their identities protected by the green belt and therefore retain their identities by virtue of the green belt.

It seems to me very dangerous to allow green belt land to be developed, even if very nice local people are in favour of it, because although this generation may like it, the next generation will have to deal with the problems.

Many people in my constituency would completely echo my hon. Friend’s comments. Certainly in relation to Broxtowe, I completely agree with him. I can see little merit in any surrendering of the green belt in my constituency, for all the reasons that I have outlined.

Sustainable development has got a very bad name, whereas it should have a very good name. I shall give a quick example of how sustainable development could enhance the lives of people not just in my constituency, but in other parts of Greater Nottingham and, indeed, in other counties, such as Lincolnshire, Derbyshire and some parts of Leicestershire. It has to do with improvement of the A453. I will not dwell too long on this, but the A453 is the road that serves the city of Nottingham, and it is a disgrace. It needs widening, improving, dualling and making safe. It needs to be a modern road to bring jobs, prosperity and growth to not only the city of Nottingham, but my constituency, because the enterprise zone that the Government have announced lies both within the city and within the borough of Broxtowe in my constituency.

A considerable amount of money is required to make that improvement to the A453, and unfortunately the Government, because of the economic mess that we inherited, cannot at the moment find the money to improve it, but the county council has offered some money. It has begun to work with Rushcliffe borough council, which has also offered some money. Unfortunately, the city of Nottingham has yet to join in with that idea, but it strikes me that that road could be improved as part of a radical rethink involving councils coming together to consider proper sustainable development. That might mean a substantial number of new homes being built at the city end of it, but the infrastructure would be improved at the same time, because the A453 would be improved. Such an improvement would link to existing public transport, given the railway station at the other end, East Midlands Parkway. Rather than alienating or destroying our environment, any such development would embrace and enhance our environment. The housing development that I want to see would be exciting and innovative. It would provide great homes for people and great places for people to enjoy and for children to play in.

That is all in sharp contrast with the sort of development that has blighted my constituency and, I suspect, many others. I shall give an example, but I want to make it clear that this is no reflection on the people. A constituency such as mine is a great place to live, because of the people who live in it and the homes that they make, but those homes are often in frankly unacceptable developments. I shall provide a quick example of the tired old policy planning that we have seen in Broxtowe. I am referring to a development opposite Bilborough college. The houses there—the homes that people have made—are splendid and lovely, but the roads are too narrow. The whole development was constructed under the previous Administration’s appalling building regulations, which often led to over-dense developments. As I have said, the roads are too narrow. There was no understanding of the modern lives that people live, so we find cars parked up on pavements. There was no appreciation of the fact that the college opposite does not allow students to park on its premises, so they park all over people’s front drives, again cluttering up the pavements. There is no public transport—can you believe it?—to serve the development. It was in effect just plonked down, and I fear that that is a common feature not only in my constituency, but throughout the country.

Why are plans given the go-ahead or de facto given the go-ahead in my constituency by my borough council? I should say at this point that my borough council is controlled by a coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. I am sure that the Minister will join me in urging his Liberal Democrat colleagues in Broxtowe seriously to reconsider the route that they have decided to go along when it comes to future growth in my constituency. In short—again, this will be familiar to a number of hon. Members—they formed something called the Greater Nottingham joint planning advisory board. Such a term would strike terror into the hearts of many people, if they could even begin to understand it. Bizarrely, the board is chaired by Broxtowe. It accepted the previous Government’s top-down housing target. It then decided, having seen that the coalition Government were going to implement their policy to abolish the regional spatial strategy and those top-down housing targets, to continue to accept the figures that had been revised by the Government. As Members know, we sought to abolish the RSS, but the High Court would not allow us to, so until we pass the Localism Bill, we are left with the RSS housing figures. That has meant that the board has accepted the target of 52,049 homes for what is called Greater Nottingham. Of those, 5,765 are to be built in Broxtowe.

On the RSS figures and the High Court hearing, does my hon. Friend accept that the Localism Bill is emerging legislation, so if local authorities had the, shall we say, strength of character—I cannot use the word I want to use here—to stand behind the emerging legislation, they could ignore the RSS numbers the previous Government forced on them?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I have certainly taken the view—I may be wrong, so I am pleased that another Member agrees with me—that local authorities are absolutely not bound by the RSS figures, and if they have the courage, they can break free of them. Indeed, I was going on to give the example of Rushcliffe, which has taken exactly that route. For some reason, however, my local authority, along with other local authorities, has decided to accept the figures, even though it can break free of them. It is not waiting for the great powers the Localism Bill will give local communities or for the planning policy framework to come fully into force.

My constituency is in London and has a heck of a lot of green belt and green land. My constituents and I are particularly worried that when regional strategies come to an end in the rest of the country, our constituency will still have to comply with the London plan, which imposes a lot on local planning. We are extremely worried that the London plan will impose things on local people that they just do not want. I am thinking, in particular, of councils.

Again, I am grateful for that contribution. I may be wrong, but I think the planning policy framework and the Localism Bill will encourage councils to work together, which is critical. It might be asked whether Broxtowe is not working with the city of Nottingham, Erewash, parts of Ashfield and Gedling council to form the joint planning advisory board, and it is right that they are working together. However, it is a question of getting the balance right so that councils are not in the pockets of a metropolitan area or more powerful councils. It is about councils having equality among themselves and working together in the manner I tried to describe in relation to the development of the A453. It should be about the county council and the borough and district councils coming together and taking a broad, sensible view for their mutual benefit. They should look at how we can have housing and how we can improve our environment and our infrastructure—in other words, proper sustainable development.

To return to the issue of Broxtowe for a moment, whatever the council might say now, it has in effect accepted the 5,765 figure, which is in all the documentation, in the press releases and in the letters that were sent out to some residents. It has actually designated its preferred sites. There are to be 800 homes on the green belt between Toton and the town of Stapleford. If we look at a map, we see that that green belt perfectly defines communities and stops sprawl, but the borough council says it is the preferred site for the development of 800 homes. Another site is to the north of Stapleford, near the village of Trowell. Many say that Trowell has lost much of its wonderful village status, which could be seen in the 1950s, when the village was chosen to mark the festival of Britain celebrations. That green belt land defines those communities, as well as providing beautiful open green spaces and wonderful views for people to enjoy. The irony is that the borough council says this is a preferred site for hundreds of new homes.

My other beef is the complete lack of real consultation. In this day and age, authorities cannot just impose homes and new housing on people in an authoritarian way; they have to consult people and work with them. I went to a number of public meetings in my constituency, and people’s overwhelming cry was that the proposals were a done deal, and they felt cheated of any form of consultation. Real anger was expressed in those meetings, and rightly so.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is not only where the homes go, but the assumptions behind why we need so many houses in the first place? Those assumptions or guidelines are never consulted on, but they are crucial.

Again, I am extremely grateful for that positive intervention. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I hear stories of how different local authorities are stepping away from the figures and determining their own figures. One of the assurances I hope to obtain from the Minister is that local authorities will be able to determine their own housing needs and will not blindly accept figures imposed without consultation by bodies whose work those authorities have had no input in and no say over.

That is exactly the approach being taken by Rushcliffe borough council, which borders my borough council in Broxtowe. It is perhaps a surprise that Rushcliffe borough council is Conservative run. It has stepped away in large part from the Greater Nottingham joint planning advisory board, of which it was once a fully fledged member. Rushcliffe accepts that there may be some build on some of its green belt, because it is keen to have growth and sustainable development. However, instead of imposing that on people, as has, I am afraid, happened in my constituency, Rushcliffe has done the exact opposite; it has gone out to people and it has had workshops and full consultations with communities. It has not only consulted parish councils, but drilled right down into communities, so that people can come along, join the debate and take a real, meaningful part in the process of determining what communities want, not only now, but in the future.

The hon. Lady is expanding on her case brilliantly. Is not the big hope for the transformation the Government are undertaking that planning will in future happen with communities, not to them, reflecting local need, not centralist tendencies?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. That is absolutely right. There are many examples of that. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) is heading up a neighbourhood plan in her constituency, where there has, understandably, been resistance to the spread of Truro. She tells me that if people in that part of Cornwall are to get the growth and jobs they want and need so much, they will have to take a more imaginative, co-operative view, which is exactly what she wants to achieve. In keeping with the approach the hon. Gentleman rightly identified, she is working with communities, not alienating them, as has been the tendency in the past and as is the case, I am afraid, in my constituency.

On that point, why can we not take the words

“presumption in favour of sustainable development”

out of the planning policy framework and insert the words “presumption in favour of local consultation before some planning decisions”? That would be a great idea, although others might disagree.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure the Minister has heard his comments, and he will no doubt respond in his speech. However, I wish to bring my remarks to an end.

My hon. Friend and neighbour and I are separated by some green belt, which perhaps gives us both an incentive to protect it even more. Before she winds up her powerful remarks, however, may I direct her to another comment in the draft planning policy framework, which says the advantage of the green belt is that it assists urban regeneration by encouraging the recycling of derelict land? Does she agree that before anyone even thinks of taking the easy option of taking away some beautiful green fields, they should tackle some of the problem contaminated brownfield sites we all have in our constituencies, which are not used? Moving those sites back into use would be a far more effective way of proceeding.

As ever, my hon. Friend makes a brilliant point, and I am grateful to have him as my neighbour, with or without any green belt that may separate us. He makes an important point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) may hear, about the value of sustainable development, which is not just about building more homes: it is much more than that. It is about bringing jobs and enhancing the environment. That may mean clearing up sites, as my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) said, so that homes may be built, or business be generated or regenerated. There are many sites, such as the Stanton works, with which my hon. Friend and I are familiar, where hundreds if not thousands of people once worked. We need that imaginative approach, which lies at the heart of sustainable development as defined in the framework and identified in the Localism Act 2011.

I suspect that what is happening in my constituency is not unique, and that is something that concerns us all.

My hon. Friend is making a great case for the green belt, but housing numbers are an issue and people need to live somewhere. In our towns and city centres there is living accommodation above shops. All sorts of accommodation often lies empty. It would do towns and city centres good if those properties were refurbished and lived in. That would take pressure off the green belt and green fields.

I completely agree with that helpful intervention. We need a revolution, in the best sense of the word, in the way we provide the new homes that so many people want, without damaging the environment: on the contrary, we can enhance it as we provide those homes. However, we must continue to protect the green belt, because of its special features.

I want to ask my hon. Friend a question that I know is of concern to her as well as me, about the impact of open-cast mining on the green belt. Last week, sadly, an application for open-cast mining in the area of Smalley in my constituency was approved by Derbyshire county council. Does my hon. Friend agree that homes are not the only problem that threatens the green belt? There are also the despoiling open-cast coal mines, which, instead of dealing with contaminated land that needs to be cleaned up, merely rip up green fields. We should have protection from those.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Paragraph 145 of the draft national planning policy framework unfortunately includes mineral extraction—the very sort of open-cast mining that blights Amber Valley and sits hanging over my constituency, between Cossall and Trowell. The paragraph makes it clear that such works are not necessarily inappropriate in green belt land. I respectfully suggest to the Government that they are wholly inappropriate in green belt land. I know that open-cast mines can be restored, and I therefore understand why they are in the paragraph, but in the short term—and, it could be argued, in the much longer term—they are scourges of the countryside. They are horrible open scars. Open-cast mining and green belt are irreconcilable. I hope that the Government will consider that paragraph and do all that they can to protect the green belt from open-cast mining.

I hope that the Minister will make it clear that the Government take the view that, as my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) said, local authorities do not have to accept the regional spatial strategy figures, and that they have the freedom and power to determine their own housing need. Planning policy statement 3 makes it clear that in determining housing need local authorities should take into account evidence of sustainable land. I may be wrong, and I hope for some clarification, but I believe that when a local authority considers its housing need it must take into account the land available to it—especially sustainable land. That means that it must consider its green belt. It cannot be the case that homes can be built on the scale in question in Broxtowe on green belt. It is not appropriate or compatible. It is imperative that councils consider the land available to them, and that if it is green belt land it is effectively a no-go area.

Having spoken to colleagues and others, I believe that there is a great danger that what is happening in Broxtowe will be allowed to take place in other parts of England, and that we need a transitional period to make sure that we protect our green belt before the Localism Act 2011 and the policy framework come into full effect. Currently many authorities are rushing through their local plans, ignoring the 2011 Act, the framework and the certainty provided by the statements made by the Prime Minister and many others that our green belt will continue to have special protection. What Broxtowe is doing presents a danger of a presumption in favour of development on green belt, which means it will be completely vulnerable to over-keen developers and heavy-handed councils.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak for so long. It is the overwhelming desire of the hon. Members present, and others throughout the House—because it is the overwhelming view of the majority of people in this country, the constituents we represent—that the green belt should be considered special. It needs to be protected and enhanced, so that it is here not just for our generation but for generations yet to come.

I intend to call the two Front Benchers at 20 to 11. There are a number of potential speakers, and I may not get to call them all.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on obtaining this important debate. I agree with much, if not all, of what she said. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Crausby.

There is housing need in this country; people need to live somewhere. However, that cannot be at the expense of concreting over the countryside. It is essential, in particular, that we should protect the green belt. I welcome what the hon. Lady said about the Minister writing to local authorities like mine to confirm the point about the RSS figures. That is important, because it will determine exactly what the policies are. She gave a good description of concerns about local authority attitudes. Local authorities need to know what numbers are needed, so that councils such as Sefton, which is drawing up its core strategy at the moment, can determine within the strategy whether there is even a need to look at the green belt. I am sure that the same considerations apply to the constituencies of many right hon. and hon. Members here today.

Green belt surrounds the many towns and small villages that make up Sefton Central. The town of Crosby is surrounded on two sides, at least, by green belt, which separates the village of Little Crosby from Great Crosby. The land up the Sefton coast to Hightown and then on to Formby is nearly all green belt, with the village of Ince Blundell sitting in between. In the Sefton Council draft core strategy, much of that is indicated as potential development sites. The same is true in the east of my constituency, around Maghull, Lydiate, Aintree and Melling. The people in those areas have objected in very large numbers to the prospect of large-scale housing developments and business use. I am sure that those comments will be familiar to other hon. Members. The concern is that much of that land is already owned by would-be developers, by people who have a history in development and by landowners who are not currently using that land. That land is nearly all grade 1 or grade 2 agricultural land. We have some of the best farming land in the country in Sefton, and the prospect of it being developed and built on is a big worry, given the concerns about food availability.

At the moment, one can have planning permission for three years and an extension of three years. Would it not be a good idea to say, “You have planning permission for three years, and you have to do it within that time,” and include completion dates and phases in the planning permission, which would also help the local plan?

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman—it is a fair point—but I am not sure that that is quite what I was getting to regarding the ownership of agricultural land in my constituency.

The hon. Member for Broxtowe mentioned the potential for councils coming forward with plans on the green belt, and gave some examples. There is an example in the village of Lydiate, where recently plans were proposed. They were for a development in the green belt outside a clearly defined urban area, and had the support of planning officers. The Leeds and Liverpool canal runs through my constituency, and the plans were for a marina on the canal. On the face of it, it was a sensible development suggestion, but it was in the green belt and would have broken a clear barrier between the urban and green belt areas. It was worrying to see planning officers recommending its approval. Fortunately, the planning committee turned it down and the planning inspectorate appeal upheld the decision, saying that it would clearly be an inappropriate development in the green belt.

As the hon. Lady said, the guidance is clear in the policy framework: the benefits have significantly to outweigh the harm for planning to be appropriate in the green belt. That has been the case for many years, and it is rightly still set out clearly in the national planning policy framework. The worry is that councils will go ahead and try to push through development in the green belt that, under that guidance, we would all consider inappropriate. The question is how we find ways to make it difficult for councils to develop in the green belt and so protect it, while addressing the need for housing, which, for many young people, is unaffordable—many people are still living at home. There is also a shortage of sheltered accommodation for our growing elderly population. We have to bear in mind such questions when considering this issue. Sustainable development also fits into that conversation. How do we meet housing need while protecting the green belt?

We have set out concerns about the impact on the brownfield first policy. It is vital to reaffirm the importance of building on brownfield sites. The point has been well made by groups such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England. What is meant by sustainable development needs spelling out, and we need a reaffirmation that this Government support the policy of brownfield first, as the previous two Governments did. We need to continue that policy.

We also need to make greater use of empty homes. There are 6,000 empty homes in Sefton, which is more than twice the national average. That is a big problem for us.

May I take the hon. Gentleman back to the brownfield first principle, which was initiated by the previous Government? It has been successful—apart from the fact that brownfield sites also included people’s back gardens, which is one of the first things this Government addressed. However, I totally agree with him: perhaps we should ask the Minister to reiterate the principle of brownfield first and make sure it is embedded in new legislation.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I give credit to the previous Conservative Government—I probably will not do that again in my speech, so make the most of it—because it was they who initiated the brownfield first policy. There has been a continuation of planning policy over the years, and a great deal of consensus. It is important that that consensus be maintained.

I was about to talk about empty homes and their importance in Sefton and elsewhere. I would add the importance of using windfall sites. There are a number of windfall sites in Sefton that can deliver many hundreds of new homes, which would remove some of the pressure on the green belt. Councils are not allowed to use windfall sites or empty homes in their calculations, and that puts additional pressure on greenfield sites and the green belt. I completely agree with the hon. Members who mentioned greenfield sites. Urban green space is as important, if not more so, than the green belt in some cases. However, as we are talking about the green belt today, I shall concentrate on that.

What we need fleshed out is a policy that supports sustainable development. One way of doing that is for the Government to make moves to help develop brownfield sites first and regenerate empty homes. It will not surprise hon. Members to know that I am calling for a reduction in VAT on renovations, because that would level the playing field between refurbishment and renovation on the one hand and new build on the other.

My constituency has a brownfield site, Webster’s garage in Axminster, where all the surrounding development is stopping the plan by having ransom strips and the like. The development, which would be right in the centre of town, has not happened for years. We need to put more pressure on local authorities and others to bring those sites together. Otherwise, they stay festering for years.

That is absolutely right. There is legislation that enables local councils to put pressure on landowners to use unsightly and unused pieces of land and buildings, but I am afraid that few councils make use of it. I hope the Minister is listening and will comment on the issue later. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) is absolutely right—we need to put pressure on landowners. One of the concerns in Sefton is that people or organisations that own large numbers of empty properties are leaving them sitting around for years and doing nothing with them. The properties fall into disuse and become targets for vandalism and a magnet for crime and antisocial behaviour. There are all sorts of other reasons, covering the broader term of sustainability, why we need action on exactly the issue the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.

The Government should take seriously the idea of cutting VAT to encourage renovation of empty homes. The policy is being proposed by the Opposition, and I know why the Government are against it, but if we want to encourage sustainable development they need to act. If VAT on renovations is not cut, what are the other options?

That would be a mistake, because that would restrict growth. Part of the debate on the NPPF is about using the planning regime to encourage growth. Increasing VAT on new build would restrict growth rather than encourage it. There are a number of reasons why a cut in VAT would be valuable, not just in bringing back empty homes and helping to protect the green belt, but in boosting the construction industry, which is one of the most effective ways of getting the economy moving again and solving some of the housing problems. It is more important to level the playing field in that way, rather than by raising VAT. There would be a huge outcry from the construction industry, as the hon. Gentleman would find, if VAT was introduced on new build.

When the national planning policy framework finally becomes a reality, I hope to see a greater emphasis on brownfield sites, empty homes and windfall land, all of which would help to protect the green belt.

The hon. Member for Broxtowe rightly mentioned some of the problems that occurred under previous unstructured planning regimes, including the development of far too many soulless housing estates and industrial developments. The problems that stem from such developments include feelings of isolation, a poor sense of community and a lack of employment opportunities. Therefore, in removing some of the planning framework, the NPPF must be careful to ensure that we do not go back to such unstructured planning, which is why the definition of sustainable development is so important. We must avoid, as we are all seeking to do, ending up with more urban sprawl into the green belt.

I mentioned the planning application that was turned down in Lydiate. One of the big threats to the green belt comes from councils. In trying to meet housing targets, they often feel that they have little choice other than to build on green belt land.

VAT cuts on renovations have the support of the Federation of Master Builders, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. In total, some 49 business organisations back the idea, and the Government would do well to look at it because there is such strong support for it in the country. The idea of creating a level playing field between new build and renovation is essential; it is a good way to protect green space and the green belt.

Consistency and a level playing field is a big issue. I have residents in the green belt who have had small extensions or small sections of hardstanding turned down because they are inappropriate; yet just around the corner, large developers are planning thousands of new homes. We need a level playing field between the small guys and the large developers. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that exists at the moment?

Such an imbalance is caused by the fact that the large developer has access to financial resources, expertise and expert legal and professional witnesses. We need such protections included in the NPPF. However, by putting the onus on local communities and local authorities to object to inappropriate development, my concern is that we may make matters worse. We all appreciate that the local authorities are cash-strapped and have faced big cuts in resources—I will not go into the politics of that. Local communities do not have the resources or the expertise to object to large-scale planning applications. Unless we are careful, the danger is that the situation will become far worse. We need the Government to beef up the NPPF before it becomes law.

In conclusion, we need to protect the green belt—the hon. Lady has done us all a big service in holding this debate today—and ensure that the councils have the tools to do it. The key to that is a definition of sustainable development that encourages local communities and councils to balance the need to protect the green belt in the long term against the need for housing. To do that, we need policies that flesh out what is meant by sustainable development. We should place greater emphasis on using brownfield sites, empty properties and windfall land. If we go down that route, we will be in a much stronger position to protect the green belt, as we all want to do.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on an eloquent and important speech. I will be as brief as I can and will try not to repeat the comments that have been made so far. I endorse many of the points that the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) made, particularly his important concluding remarks.

As my constituency consists of the urban sprawl of Poole and then villages and small towns, the green belt is of great importance to us. My constituency is also distinguished by its large amount of heathland, which is a great constraint on development. I was a vociferous campaigner against the south-west regional spatial strategy and the housing it imposed from above on my constituency. There were excellent campaign groups, such as “Keep Corfe Mullen Green” and “Keep Wimborne Green”. We were all delighted when the regional spatial strategy housing numbers were scrapped—or so we thought. Throughout our campaign, I was conscious of the need for affordable housing; we need it desperately. What we did not need was more executive houses and more second homes in our green belt. I had a vision of communities working together because they know what their local housing need is. I wanted to see full involvement from the bottom up. I was delighted in principle with the Localism Bill and the thrust of the NPPF. As ever, though, the devil is in the detail, but I do accept the principles.

As the detail is missing in both the Localism Bill and the NPPF, we have a particular problem with transition. In the few minutes that I have, I should like to talk about the problems of transition and how I think the green belt will be compromised. Let me take the example of Corfe Mullen in my constituency. Originally, all the local councils—not the parish council—signed up to building 700 houses in the most beautiful valley imaginable. Eventually, the district council backtracked, but the matter still went to the examination in public, with the county council supporting the development. The spatial strategy had been scrapped, so we thought that the beautiful valley would be saved. East Dorset district council worked on its core strategy and excluded this site; it had listened and that was good. None the less, there are developers out on Pardy’s Hill, obviously sizing up the site. My fear is that a quick planning application will come in and we will be back to square one.

We must think about the transition. We need ministerial guidance on transition now. The coalition has a real vision of local neighbourhood planning, but, please, we must protect our green belt, urban green spaces and valuable agricultural land. If we do not get to grips with that aspect, our vision will be totally lost. For the sake of our constituents and those who campaigned so hard against Labour’s top-down approach, please do not let this happen. There is much to be said, but we have another debate later this week, so I will make further points then.

Thank you, Mr Crausby, for calling me to speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on securing this important debate. The number of Members who have turned up shows how important the green belt is for many MPs.

I turned up here in Westminster Hall 18 months ago, when we had a very similar debate about the green belt and the Localism Bill. I was delighted that that Bill was introduced to ensure the protection of the green belt and to ensure that local communities decide where houses go. The problem is that that debate was 18 months ago.

Since then, I was delighted when the national planning policy framework included special protection for the green belt. However, the reality on the ground in our constituencies is that developers are currently putting in applications to develop green belt land. In South Gloucestershire, we are only just managing to hold off the developers, with the local council working together with residents to ensure that the green belt is protected. Even though we are going to the Planning Inspectorate and applications by developers are being thrown out, in one area of Longwell Green developers submitted an application to build 80 houses on green belt land. We defeated that application, which involved a 1,000-signature petition, by going through the whole planning process, but the developer, having had his application rejected, has now put in another application for 25 houses on the green belt.

My constituents’ patience is wearing thin. They support the Government’s desire to protect the green belt; they believe the Government are protecting the green belt; and they believe that I, the local MP, am standing up for the green belt in the wonderful areas of Kingswood, where I grew up. However, we need to act now, and we need to be on the side of David, our residents, rather than on the side of Goliath, the developers.

I urge the Minister to consider the suggestion that if a developer puts in a planning application on greenfield or green belt land and that application is rejected, they should not be allowed to put in another application for another five years, or perhaps 10 years, because we cannot have this situation whereby developers are allowed, time and time again, to run riot over our planning process.

Thank you, Mr Crausby, for calling me to speak.

I rise to speak as an MP for the north-east. I am disappointed that there are no other MPs here from Northumberland, Newcastle, Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, Durham or Teesside. Nevertheless, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on securing this debate, where she has made a compelling case. In addition, I entirely support what has just been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore).

I will speak very briefly, because I am very conscious that time is short. I want to emphasise my community’s desire to protect the green belt areas that are in or near my constituency. There is a need for housing in Northumberland and young people certainly struggle to get on the housing ladder. Without them, the schools, villages, shops and communities that make up the fabric of God’s own county struggle. We have small villages in Kielder, Riding Mill and Wylam where there is a need for community-based affordable housing, which is surely the way forward.

That aim is best achieved by the type of town and village plans that are being brought forward. They should be supported, and I entirely endorse the work that has been done by local villages such as Ponteland and in towns such as Hexham, which is my local town. Those villages and towns are putting forward really good local plans to establish how they will run their local communities. That is the way forward, not the bureaucratic, top-down, regional spatial nonsense that was forced on us by the previous Government and that great pioneer of planning and housing, John Prescott.

In the limited time that I have to speak, I want to touch briefly on urban regeneration. I am talking about regeneration not only in rural Northumberland but in places such as Newcastle, Gateshead and Tyne and Wear, which have sites that can be taken up and utilised. I urge the Minister to make it a fundamental priority that urban regeneration is done not only in large cities but in smaller villages and towns.

The usage of Government sites is another priority. In my area, two former hospital sites have lain derelict for nearly 20 years. The Stannington hospital site has not been used since 1993. We—the taxpayers—have paid more than £1 million to keep it secure during the past 15 to 20 years, but not a building has been built, nobody lives there and nobody has done anything with the site. We therefore have a Government-owned site, a need for housing and, hopefully, a way in which that site can be utilised for housing in the future, which would also release funds that the Government clearly need. That is the sort of project that we should be highlighting and identifying with, not anything in relation to building on the green belt or greenfield sites. The former mental hospital site at Prudhoe in my area is being developed in the way that I have just outlined. I would have liked that project to include more affordable housing, but there is a good, sustainable mix of housing, which is the way forward.

I also want to touch on the scandal of empty homes. I will be very curious to hear the Minister’s response on this point. In the region of Northumberland, including in my constituency, there are 2,351 empty homes, as established by an audit carried out by the county council in April. Those homes were not used in the six months prior to April and were therefore sitting idle. We could do so much with those properties in the towns and villages where they are located. The county council is conducting an excellent project on using empty homes. I support and endorse that project, and I hope that the council’s approach will be supported by the Minister.

I will make a final point. If there is an example of the housing that we should be getting, it is surely the Vanguard project. That is the pilot project put forward by the Government, which we are proud to have in Allendale in my constituency. Allendale Community Housing has got local communities and local partners involved. It has taken former sites and turned them around, with local partners providing the building, the jobs and the architects’ work. I entirely credit the work of ACH in this matter. That type of development is the right way forward, and it is what we need to see, rather than there being any prospect of any building on the green belt.

I thank you, Mr Crausby, for the limited time that I have had today to speak.

Thank you very much, Mr Crausby, for calling me to speak.

In the very short time available to me today, I will not try to respond to the many points made by the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), who sadly is no longer in his place, having spoken in the debate for 20 minutes.

The number of MPs here in Westminster Hall from both the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat parties shows the degree of concern about some of the planning changes proposed by Her Majesty’s Government. I want to give the Government the benefit of the doubt, because they are genuinely trying to introduce localism and to hand decisions about development back to local people, but I will reserve my judgment, and if it turns out that those planning changes are a charter for developers, I, for one, will strenuously express my opposition to them. For now, however, the Government are right in trying to hand the decisions about these developments back to local people, represented by their local councillors, who are the right people to decide whether there should be building and, if so, where it should be.

I will not give way, because I do not have time to do so.

Right now, speaking in this debate on the green belt, I am in opposition, because in North Wiltshire we have no green belt—it does not exist in our area. However, we face very significant threats to areas such as Purton, Lydiard Millicent, Lydiard Tregoze and even Royal Wootton Bassett, which is called “royal” after the magnificent ceremony that took place on Sunday. Swindon is sprawling westwards and currently there is no constraint whatsoever apart from the “rural buffer zone”—no one quite knows what a “rural buffer zone” is. Equally, there is talk of putting 5,000 houses around the town of Chippenham, which is already growing very fast. Even in Malmesbury, there is talk about putting some houses in the Park Road estate, effectively on green belt land, which is very worrying.

I have written to Ministers about this subject, asking why we do not have green belts in North Wiltshire. We ought to have them, as we are under as much threat as anywhere else in England. I was very encouraged to receive a response from Ministers telling me that the body that can decide whether or not to have a green belt is, in fact, the local authority. It is not the Government but the local authority that can decide to have it. Now is the moment that the local authority can do that, when we are consulting on plans for the local area.

My message to Wiltshire unitary council—a very fine Conservative-run council—and indeed to councils up and down the land run by all sorts of parties is that if we are concerned about our green belt and the green fields surrounding our urban areas, there is a very simple solution. Let us create a green belt around the towns of Swindon and Chippenham, and let us say to developers, “You may not build on these green fields and green belt. You may not build there at all. You must build on brownfield sites in the centres of towns.” Let us not do what Lord Prescott—who is much missed here in the Commons—did. You will recall, Mr Crausby, that he very famously said, “The green belt is a Labour triumph—let’s build on it.”

Thank you, Mr Crausby, for calling me to speak.

I want to focus very briefly on the Government’s draft national planning policy framework. Thankfully, the draft framework seeks to protect the green belt provision, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry). However, it is clear that the guidance regarding green belt land will be simplified. I am not against that, but it is vital that any such simplification does not equate to weaker green belt protections in practice, and I seek an assurance from the Minister on that. We all know that loose language can lead to loose definitions, which in turn can lead to loose interpretations of planning guidance, not to mention the potential for legal challenges. We must, therefore, clarify that point early on in the wider planning debate.

In addition, I am concerned about the clear emphasis in the draft planning framework that it should not be necessary to propose any new green belt land except in exceptional circumstances. Greenfield sites—mentioned by a number of Members—do not share the same protection as green belt land and, with the Government keen to introduce a presumption in favour of development, I am worried that there might be no further opportunities to extend green belt protection to such sites, which many communities in my constituency would like to see.

Green belt land plays a vital role in shaping and defining communities in rural areas across the country. The overwhelming majority of York Outer residents are proud of the beautiful countryside that surrounds their homes, their villages and the historic city of York. Local residents will fight to protect their green belt land, and I will stand by them.

The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) has done our green and pleasant land a great service by initiating this debate.

In this House and in this country we cherish our green belt and our countryside, as captured in the immortal words of the great English anthem, “Linden Lea”:

“Within the woodlands, flowery gladed,

’neath the oak tree’s mossy moot,

The shining grass-blades, timber-shaded,

Now do quiver under foot…

And brown-leav’d fruit’s a-turning red,

In cloudless sunshine, overhead…

To where, for me, the apple tree

Do lean down low in Linden Lea.”

But to cherish is not enough. The great planning settlement of 1947 sought to reconcile growth and development with a genuine say for local people and the protection of our natural environment. Historically, the purposes of green belt in planning policies were to protect the countryside from urban sprawl and to retain the character of towns and cities. Green belts are a buffer between towns, and between a town and the surrounding countryside, and within that belt damaged and derelict land can be improved and nature conservation encouraged.

Green belts are currently protected by planning policy guidance note 2, but that will be replaced by the national planning policy framework. The presumption against inappropriate development in the green belt unless there are very special circumstances that outweigh the harm caused by the development, is to be removed by the NPPF. At the moment, proposals in draft plans that would result in releasing land from the green belt must be fully justified; the Labour Government were committed to protecting the green belt and we encouraged the recycling of land and a brownfield-first approach.

Given the time available, no.

The NPPF also removes Labour’s brownfield-first policy. Under the Labour Government, the green belt expanded by 34,640 hectares. This Government have repeatedly said that policies to protect the green belt and nationally designated landscapes will be retained in the NPPF, but the framework, which replaces all planning guidance, does not give sufficient confidence to people who want our countryside to be protected and risks antagonising local communities rather than engaging them. Inevitably, there will be greater opposition, more appeals and a less effective planning system.

We badly need more development—well-designed and in the right place—not least because we have a growing housing crisis. The Government, however, have responded to legitimate concerns expressed by broad-based non-political organisations such as the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England by calling them “left-wing” and “semi-hysterical,” and by saying that the organisations are guilty of “nihilistic selfishness”. In the current climate, we have the worst of all worlds: collapsing house building, chaos in the planning system and a chorus of voices whose concerns have not yet been properly heard.

How do we salvage some sense from this mess, and protect our green belt? First, we need a recognised definition of sustainable development. The Government should continue to support the widely-subscribed-to 2005 definition. Secondly, and crucially, we need a restoration of the successful brownfield-first policy, which was initiated under a Conservative Government and developed under a Labour one, with 76% of development on brownfield sites. There is currently enough brownfield land available to build 1.2 million homes. Thirdly, we need protection for our town centres. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) referred to the repopulation of our town centres, including people living above shops, and I strongly agree with his view. Fourthly, there should be a commitment to affordable housing, not the trading-off of such housing for reasons of viability and, fifthly, we need transitional arrangements that protect local communities against what will sometimes be predatory proposals by developers—a point that the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) was absolutely right to raise earlier. Finally, we hope that the Government will put the NPPF to a vote in both Houses of Parliament.

Specific concerns have been raised about the NPPF and the green belt. Some people believe that the draft framework does not maintain the existing green belt protections and that it should be improved and strengthened.

Given the time available, no.

A legal opinion commissioned by the Campaign to Protect Rural England emphasises the need to retain the current presumption against inappropriate development in the green belt. Ministers have stated on a number of occasions that the draft NPPF maintains the current protection of the green belt, but although the draft framework incorporates a number of features of current policy—in PPG2, green belts—the CPRE believes that paragraphs 133 to 147 of the consultation draft policy contain a serious weakening of current protections for the following reasons—

Given the time available, no.

The presumption in favour of sustainable development appears to apply in green belts as in all other locations—other than European wildlife sites—meaning, in the CPRE’s view, that development proposals could be refused only if they were shown to harm the objectives of the NPPF as a whole, rather than being harmful purely in green belt policy terms, as at present. The loss of the presumption against inappropriate development is highlighted in the CPRE’s legal opinion, and of particular concern is when the presumption in favour of sustainable development appears to apply in the green belt. Accordingly, the CPRE argues that the presumption against inappropriate development should be reinstated, and cross-referenced in the section covering the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

Other concerns have been expressed by, for example, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has received legal advice that the draft planning proposals would weaken protection for the 4,000 sites of special scientific interest across England. Concerns have also been expressed to us by people who value our village greens. As part of its consultation on village greens, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that it intends to charge communities £1,000 to start the process of protecting their local green spaces.

In conclusion, I would like to put certain questions to the Minister. First, does he agree with the CPRE’s legal opinion that the green belt is at risk? Secondly, what is his view of the other potential loopholes in the draft policy? Thirdly, what is his view of the RSPB’s legal advice that the draft planning proposals would weaken protection for 4,000 sites of special scientific interest? Fourthly, is it right to charge local communities £1,000 to safeguard their village greens?

The Government need to move beyond deriding their critics and polarising the debate. Legitimate concerns have been expressed. We need a system fit for purpose. I hope that the Minister responds constructively.

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Crausby, in a debate that has generated huge interest from hon. Friends and other Members who have this concern on their constituency agendas. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on presenting her case with skill and liveliness. I appreciate her concern that many new homes might be built on green belt in Broxtowe, strictly in accordance with the old regional strategy. Her tour of the history of the green belt and the geography of her constituency was enlightening.

I declare an interest. I do not have a partner who is a developer, but I do have a constituency consisting exclusively of built-up areas and green belt. There is no other choice. I assure hon. Members and my hon. Friends that irrespective of my position in the Government, I entirely share their concern to ensure strong green belt policy that is not weakened by the reforms that we are making. In the brief time available, I hope that I can reassure her and others that far from weakening environmental protection, our planning reforms will strengthen them.

My hon. Friend made some specific points about her constituency and what she perceives to be the contrasting behaviour of the two district councils of Broxtowe and Rushcliffe. Propriety considerations prevent me from commenting on particular situations and requirements, because core strategies will be subjected to examination by independent inspectors appointed by the Secretary of State. Perhaps it is no bad thing that I am not in a position to comment.

My hon. Friend and several other people who spoke made points about the phraseology of the national planning policy framework. I will ensure that the Hansard record of this debate is entered into the consultation process, so remarks made here will be added to remarks received. The consultation officially finished on Monday, but if in the light of this debate hon. Members feel moved to contribute personally or on behalf of organisations, I assure them that if they are quick, their views will still be considered.

I am grateful for the Minister’s clarifications. Can he give us a definition of a presumption of sustainable development?

Fortunately, my task is made much easier by the fact that that definition takes up about a page and a half of the NPPF. I remind the House that there will be a debate specifically about that on Thursday, so I will contain my remarks to those aspects related to the green belt. I encourage hon. Members and my hon. Friends to contribute to the debate on Thursday.

Will the Minister consider supporting the Second Reading of my Electricity Transmission (Protection of Landscape) Bill, which covers land that is of value to the community but not strictly green belt land, particularly in view of the fact that parish councils will be putting together their plans and local people can be heard in that way?

I have certainly heard what my hon. Friend says. I will concentrate on the green belt for the moment, if I may.

The draft NPPF sets out the Government’s proposed policies on planning and retains the key policy protections for the green belt. I emphasise to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) that I preferred his choice of poetry to his choice of lawyer in his description of what we have done. The draft NPPF says:

“Inappropriate development is, by definition, harmful to the Green Belt and should not be approved except in very special circumstances.”

Those special circumstances, as my hon. Friend said while introducing this debate, are clearly set out. She drew particular attention to one aspect that she did not like, but that was an exception contained in the original green belt policy, which is currently in force.

The shadow Minister has given the legal opinion presented to the CPRE. Does the Minister have a legal opinion of his own giving an alternative view? It would be helpful if we could see the counter-view.

As I have four minutes remaining, it is sensible for me simply to say that I hope that the hon. Gentleman will find the opportunity to make that point on Thursday during the wider debate.

The Government value the green belt highly. It is an essential planning tool to prevent sprawl, and its retention is a coalition agreement commitment. The abolition of the regional spatial strategies through the Localism Bill will stop the top-down pressure to review green belts in many areas. Some 30 green belt areas are currently under the kind of pressure that my hon. Friend outlined eloquently, due to the pressure exerted by regional spatial strategies, which often impose highly inappropriate numbers on areas without the physical capacity to take them.

In future, local planning authorities will be in control. It is certainly not for central Government to decide where green belts should be; as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) correctly advised the House, that is a matter for local authorities. He discussed green fields as opposed to green belts. The NPPF says clearly that

“the planning system should aim to conserve and enhance the natural and local environment by protecting valued landscapes”.

There is a good deal more about environmental protection, to which I draw his attention.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) asked about the transition from the current system to the new one. Whether anybody likes it or not, the existing planning system and its case law will remain in place until replaced by a new system. That new system will come into force upon the passage of the Localism Bill. At the moment, it is assumed that if the House is willing, that will happen on 1 April next year.

Authorities are free to make whatever assessment they believe they should make of their housing strategy and draw up plans in accordance with the current system as they think fit. They should, of course, pay full attention to current consultation procedures, and their core strategies will be subject to review by the independent planning inspectorate in exactly the same way.

That is not to say that legitimate concerns have not been raised about an interim situation. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington made the point that perhaps some will seek to exploit the difference. However, we want plans to be developed in accordance with the wishes of local communities and to create the homes, jobs, transport links and recreational facilities that we need to produce environmentally, socially and economically sustainable communities. It is the Government’s clear intention to do so.

On empty homes—