It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. We have a very short debate, so you will have to excuse us if we rattle through it. We need to explore the history of the Radlett site and the role of the metropolitan green belt in protecting communities from harm. We need to explore the professed support or otherwise given to green-belt land by the coalition Government and by the previous Labour Government, and the views of key players such as the Minister concerning the appropriateness of development, particularly in the green belt, to see whether there has been any slackening of resolve to protect communities such as mine in and around the Radlett site.
It is worth restating that green-belt land serves specific purposes. It may fulfil one or more of its five designated functions: to check unrestricted sprawl of built-up areas; to prevent neighbouring towns from coalescing; to safeguard the countryside from encroachment; and to preserve the setting of historic towns while encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land. The Radlett green-belt site fulfils all those functions, so it serves a very valuable purpose, even if it is not all beautiful woodland. There is no bad green belt. We ditch that principle at our peril. My constituents in St Albans and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), who will speak in this debate, need to know whether the green belt is safe under this Government, or will the economic imperative to get the country building mean that we ditch those worthy principles when it suits us?
Given the “minded to grant” decision by the Minister on a rail freight interchange on the Radlett aerodrome site, which comprises 300 acres of metropolitan green belt—the site represents 10% of the entire green belt around St Albans—it is important to explore whether is fully supportive of protecting green belt policy or if he believes it to be an inconvenient blockage that stands in the way of the drive for growth. Is he to stand accused of supporting the green belt when it is politically expedient to do so but jettisoning his principles when the need arises or under pressure from the Treasury?
I think that each green-belt application should be decided on its merits; that is very firmly the case. Indeed, I will go on to show that there is very little merit in the application for St Albans. I will not give way any more, because my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere and I must get everything down in this particularly important debate.
Can the Minister convince the House and my constituents that he does have a passion for the green belt and that he has a coherent and consistent approach to planning decisions? Some people have tried to suggest that this green belt site in Radlett is not really green belt, so it is important that we briefly explore the history of the site and its role as green belt.
Radlett was used as a grass aerodrome in the 1930s. In 1947, the runways were upgraded to concrete. All that was before the introduction of the metropolitan green belt protections, which were fully implemented in 1955. By 1970, the runway was no longer in use; most of the structures on the site were removed and it was restored to farmland. However, for a second time the community of Park Street was required to allow its land to be utilised for the greater good of the country when it was revealed that significant sand and gravel deposits lay under the site. In common with communities across the country that have such deposits, a firm undertaking was given that full restoration and landscaping of the land would occur and that it would be returned to the community as an open green space—in our case, green belt.
In 1978, 1985 and 1990, the site was used for gravel extraction, with the runways dug up to access the gravel. That ceased in 1997. The site has undergone a full environmental restoration, which has nearly been completed. The people of this community, like other communities that endure mineral extraction, rightly expected the restoration of the site as a community green space and nothing else. They were horrified to be targeted by developers for a massive rail freight site in 2006. That application was made because the Government of the day had a stated mission to deliver three or four new rail sites that would be
“located where the key rail and road radials intersect with the M25”,
and developers were scrabbling around to find land that would deliver on that goal.
In 2007, the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris), who was then a Transport Minister, said that the importance of rail freight had been acknowledged in terms of its significant contribution to the economy and productivity. In 2009, Lord Adonis said:
“Rail freight has become a vital driver of UK economic growth...The government remains fully committed to supporting...the development of a Strategic Freight Network”.
It has therefore always been a battle between the economy, the need to build and the protection of our countryside. The economic imperative has been a material planning consideration whenever a proposal to build on the site at Radlett has been considered. However, the question has always been whether the strength of protection afforded by green-belt status would be overridden. It has been a David-and-Goliath struggle, costing my local council more than £1 million, and STRiFE, a valiant group of local residents to whom I pay tribute, huge amounts of time, money and effort in fighting for their community and, importantly, for the green belt.
The case has been tested twice, in 2008 and 2010, and the green-belt designation saved Radlett on both occasions. It is worth noting what Ministers said when they reached those decisions about the weight given to Radlett’s green-belt status. Every application for the site has been for an almost identical scheme. In 2008, the decision was as follows:
“The Secretary of State considered that the need for SRFIs”—
strategic rail freight interchanges—
“to serve London and the South East was a material consideration of very considerable weight”,
but the then Secretary of State went on to say that
“very special circumstances to justify the development had not been demonstrated.”
“concluded that the proposal would constitute inappropriate development in the Green Belt and…attached substantial weight to that harm. She also identified that it would further harm the Green Belt because it would cause a substantial loss of openness, significant encroachment into the countryside and would contribute to urban sprawl”.
That is all contrary to green belt design. It is pretty damning stuff, with real harm to Radlett being identified and every one of the five green-belt purposes being compromised.
In 2010, the plans were considered again. We had a new Secretary of State and a similar decision; it had almost the same wording. In May 2010, he said that he was
“not satisfied that the appraisal of alternative sites”
“clearly demonstrated that there would be no other suitable location in the North West Sector that would meet the need for an SRFI in the foreseeable future in a significantly less harmful way than the appeal site.”
He went on to say that the benefits of the proposal, taken either individually or cumulatively, would not clearly outweigh the harm to the green belt and other harm. He did not therefore consider that there were special circumstances. He concluded that there were no material considerations of sufficient weight that would require him to determine the application other than in accordance with the development plan. It was refused.
It is clear that despite the need for an SRFI somewhere near London, the green-belt protection always held firm for very similar applications. Then the mood in the Government appears to change. A few colleagues are shuffled off into other areas, and we start to hear a lot of talk about the need to get Britain building. Those who stand in the way are dismissed as luddites.
Other Departments put in bids for construction projects, particularly in relation to transport, with High Speed 2 and rail freight suddenly hot topics. In 2011, the previous Secretary of State for Transport made a statement on rail freight and stressed its economic benefits, saying that
“the Government believe that rail freight could make an even stronger contribution to the country’s economic recovery.”
That sounds like a rehashing of the old Strategic Rail Authority statement and comments that I have quoted in my speech. I am concerned that the coalition Government may now be using a flatlining economy as a justification to take a less than robust view on green-belt protection—to ditch protection of our countryside in a massive push for activity. I want to test that in this debate. If it were to be the case, it would have worrying implications for many communities across the countryside.
That Secretary of State went on to say in her statement:
“The Government are therefore taking measures to unblock the development of strategic rail freight interchanges”—[Official Report, 29 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 57-8WS.]
What is meant by unblocking? I am extremely concerned that the convenient overriding of green-belt policy may be seen as the solution to unblocking the wants of the Treasury and the Department for Transport, yet historically Ministers and senior politicians have sworn that the green belt is dear to their heart and safe in their hands.
The Prime Minister, reassuring the National Trust in September 2011, said:
“We must ensure the appropriate protections for our magnificent countryside. This is why our reforms will maintain protections for the green belt”.
In 2011, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said in response to oral questions that
“we intend to ensure that the green belt is held solid and absolutely inviolate by this Administration. We are not going to follow the tenets of the former Labour Government by concreting over the green belt.”—[Official Report, 4 April 2011; Vol. 526, c. 731.]
Much was made in opposition of the concern that Labour could not be trusted with the countryside. In 2005, my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) said:
“Under John Prescott’s watch, Green Belt protection has become worthless.”
In 2008, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), then shadow Housing Minister, when challenged on the flexible reassigning of green belt, said that
“we will rigorously protect the Green Belt and won’t pull the wool over people’s eyes by saying that we’re enlarging it, whilst simultaneously deleting parts and creating new green belt…We’ll protect the Green Belt and we won’t play tricks by deleting one part and creating it elsewhere”.
The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who was then the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, said of Labour:
“They are designating land as Green Belt land simply to fiddle the figures”.
Both coalition partners agreed that we cannot swap the green belt around conveniently, but there appears to have been a seismic shift in sentiment. It is now being touted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer as a way of getting round the awkward nature of the green belt. On “The Andrew Marr Show” in September 2012, he said:
“When it comes to the Green Belt...we are not proposing to tear that up but if you look at, for example, around Cambridge…they’ve been pretty smart about swapping some bits of the Green Belt for other bits...Those powers already exist but they’re not widely used, I’d like to see more of that.”
There is a bit of a change of mood there.
I am very concerned that the mood and rhetoric around planning and development has changed. We have a new Minister in place, and I am sorry to say that I do not have confidence that he truly understands the value communities up and down the country place on the green belt, nor does he have the confidence of my constituents, who will be unsure of what we as a Government stand for if this departure from green belt protection goes ahead. I am sure that many of them, who have copied me in on their correspondence, will let him know that.
In January 2012, in a speech to the Tory Reform Group, the Minister said:
“Business investment is also deterred by the bureaucratic rigidity of our outdated planning regime. So it is essential that we press on with our planning reforms and do not allow the hysterical scare-mongering of latterday Luddites…to strangle developments”.
On “Newsnight” he said:
“We’re going to protect the green belt”,
but he went on to say:
“The built environment can be more beautiful than nature and we shouldn’t obsess about the fact that the only landscapes that are beautiful are open—sometimes buildings are better.”
May I inform the Minister that 6 million square feet of industrial development on the green belt will never be regarded as beautiful or better? It will not deliver any local benefit, either in economic terms or through homes for local people.
This flip-flop, inconsistent approach to decision making is infuriating residents, who have a right to expect protection from inappropriate development and to lean on green-belt policies to defend them. In response to my constituent who contacted him about his “Newsnight” comments, the Minister wrote:
“We recognise the importance of the countryside to the well-being of communities, which is why the National Planning Policy Framework guards against inappropriate development in valued areas such as the Green Belt”.
Given that reassuring response, my constituents now regard his decision to be minded to grant a desecration of 300 acres of local green belt as somewhat hypocritical. He can drop a conjoined inquiry for Radlett with no explanation—which is being challenged by my council, so I will not investigate that here—but it seems that he can oppose developments when it suits him.
In a letter to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the Minister sought to clarify his position on inappropriate locations for wind farms:
“We should be working with communities rather than seemingly riding roughshod over their concerns”.
My constituents are being ridden over roughshod and they are not being worked with. They were informed on the Friday before Christmas that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was minded to sacrifice the green belt at Radlett, and have concluded that the Minister cannot be trusted on the green belt, and my post bag reflects that.
We need to ask who is now deciding planning policy—the Minister and his Department or the economic drive of the Treasury? He knows that if the development goes ahead, it will hugely harm St Albans. The fatal decision letter of December 2012 said that
“the appeal proposal would be inappropriate development in the Green Belt...it would cause further harm through loss of openness and significant encroachment into the countryside...would contribute to urban sprawl…would cause some harm to the setting of St Albans. The Secretary of State has attributed substantial weight to the harm that would be caused to the Green Belt”.
Surprisingly, substantial weight having been given to the need for an SRFI in the other appeals of 2008 and 2010, it now appears to trump green-belt protection. It seems that the hunt for shovel-ready sites is paramount, but I hate to inform the Minister that this site is green fields and does not have a hope of being developed for years. It certainly is not shovel-ready.
The letter went on to say:
“The Secretary of State considers that the factors weighing in favour of the appeal include the need for SRFIs to serve London and the South East, to which he has attributed very considerable weight.”
That is the only thing that has changed, which leads me to believe that there has been a shift in green-belt policy. The words are almost the same as those used in previous refusals. Have we had a change in green-belt policy? Do national economic factors now outweigh green-belt planning protection? Is it really, “The economy, stupid”? Perhaps the Chancellor’s recent words when discussing High Speed 2 give us a clue to the new approach:
“As with all these things unfortunately somebody is going to be affected, but that’s life.”
It might be life for some, namely my constituents living cheek by jowl with a noisy, intrusive 24/7 industrial development, but it is not life for privileged Ministers fortunate enough not to be affected by their aggressive decisions to build on Britain’s beautiful landscapes and green belt. The Minister needs to demonstrate by his deeds that he truly supports the green belt and to rethink the dangerous precedent he may be setting by sacrificing our historic landscapes on the altar of No. 11’s economic strategy.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) for giving me permission to take part in the debate and for the leave from appropriate quarters. I congratulate her on securing the debate.
As anybody listening to the debate will have gathered, my hon. Friend has been absolutely indefatigable in her opposition to the planning application. It would be disastrous for the green belt in Hertfordshire, for her and my constituents and for anybody who has a fondness and affection for the city of St Albans. I join her in paying tribute to STRiFE for its hard work against the behemoth that is seeking the planning application.
It is entirely right that we debate the decisions not to hold a conjoined inquiry for the Colnbrook and Radlett proposals and to grant permission for the Radlett proposal—two decisions announced just before Christmas. Those decisions can be described only as perverse and unreasonable, in view of what the Government said previously. As recently as 19 September, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government wrote to interested parties to say that he was of the view that there should be a conjoined inquiry. I shall briefly quote from his letter, which is absolutely clear:
“The Secretary of State is of the view that the two schemes raise similar and inter-related issues. He considers it likely that their comparative merits will be a significant material consideration in his determination of the Radlett proposal. Furthermore, he considers that a decision on the Radlett proposal and the reasoning for that decision may have a significant bearing on his determination of the Colnbrook proposal. Given this, he is of the view that re-opening the inquiry into the Radlett appeal and conjoining it with the planned inquiry into the proposed SRFI at Colnbrook is likely to lead to a more coherent and consistent decision-making process overall.”
The Secretary of State’s view on 19 September could not have been clearer, nor could the subsequent U-turn. How can he take the view in September that a conjoined inquiry is the right way forward, then simply take the opposite view in December, without giving any proper explanation, and decide that one is unnecessary?
The majority of respondents to the Secretary of State’s letter of 19 September were in favour of a conjoined inquiry, and, in any case, all the responses to the consultation were what would have been expected from the relevant parties. The Minister needs to explain to my constituents and those of my hon. Friend how that change of mind came about. It is not good enough to say, “I have changed my mind.” Ministers need to give reasons. We cannot have capricious decision making. As matters stand, the Minister is, according to his Department’s own argument on 19 September, taking a course likely to lead to inconsistent and incoherent decision-making processes overall. That was the view in September.
Any reasonable person observing the contortions of ministerial decision making in such a short time would be driven to the conclusion that the process had been thoroughly perverse. The Minister owes it to those affected by the decision to give a proper explanation. As matters stand, the process bears the marks of a capriciousness that one would more readily associate with a mediaeval despot than a Minister in a modern democracy. I know my hon. Friend the Minister, and I do not think that it is in his nature to be a despot, but on this occasion he is giving a passable impersonation of one.
There is also capriciousness in the Secretary of State’s assessment of the harm associated with development on the two sites. In his letter of 20 December 2012, he said that he sees
“little reason to conclude that Colnbrook would meet the needs for an SRFI in a less harmful way than the appeal site”.
That stands contrary to the position the Secretary of State took when he reached his first decision only two years earlier, on 7 July 2010:
“The Secretary of State considers that if an application were to be made for a SRFI at Colnbrook of about the size indicated in evidence to the Radlett inquiry, then harm to the Green Belt might, subject to testing in an alternative sites assessment, be found to be significantly less than the harm caused by the Radlett proposal.”
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. It is another matter that the Minister needs to explain. The residents of the two areas, and those who are interested in the environment, deserve an explanation as to why there has not been an alternative sites assessment. We have a Minister saying in 2010 that the alternative site could be less harmful and then saying in 2012, “No, it will not be less harmful.” I do not think that Slough has moved since July 2010 and I am certain that St Albans has not moved. What other explanation could there be? He is saying the exact opposite of what was said just over two years ago.
The decision is no small matter as far as my constituents and those of my hon. Friend are concerned. As she spelt out in graphic and correct terms, it has profound implications for the green belt in Hertfordshire. Everyone, apart from the applicant, who has looked at the application can see that it is very damaging for that green belt. As previous Secretaries of State and inspectors have concluded, this development would have a substantial impact on the openness of the green belt, result in significant encroachment into the countryside and contribute to urban sprawl, to mention but some of the highly undesirable consequences that flow from it. This development would damage the environment and reduce the quality of life for my constituents and for those of my hon. Friend in St Albans.
My hon. Friend is again right.
The decision is deeply flawed, because such a decision should be taken only when the alternatives have been properly considered, and, they have not been in this case. Ministerial decision making has been flawed, unreasonable and perverse. It does not stand examination, and questions are not being answered. An onus now falls on the Minister to explain such clearly flawed decision making and to demonstrate that the Government really care about the green belt. As my hon. Friend has appropriately explained, as matters stand the Government’s commitment to the green belt is questioned by the decision-making process in this case, which is very damaging to the green belt in Hertfordshire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing this debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) on contributing to it. They are both entirely tireless, passionate and committed in fighting for their constituents’ interests, and I completely understand their strength of feeling and that of the constituents whom they are representing about the decision taken just before Christmas.
I hope that you, Mr Williams, and my hon. Friends will understand that, unfortunately, I am not able to comment specifically on this proposal, because it may be subject to judicial review, as my hon. Friends know very well. It is entirely open to the local authority or any other party to ask for that. Unfortunately, that means that I, with my quasi-judicial function, cannot go into the reasons for the Secretary of State’s decision before Christmas about being minded to allow the proposal, which are set out in the decision letter. Although I completely accept that the specific reasons do not satisfy either my hon. Friends or their constituents, I am afraid that that is all I can say about them.
In the short time available, I will try to reassure my hon. Friends that, although they and their constituents profoundly disagree with the decision, that decision flows from existing policy, which is unchanged and was set out in the national planning policy framework. The framework states:
“The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts. The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open”.
It explains that the green belt is often highly valued by communities and provides a vital “green lung” around many towns. In its original draft, as approved by Parliament, the framework states that many types of new building are inappropriate development and should not be granted permission
“except in very special circumstances”.
The key test, as set out in the framework, is whether a particular development meets such very special circumstances. I entirely accept and respect the fact that neither of my hon. Friends believes, and nor do their constituents believe, that this proposal meets that test, and I suspect that nothing could be said or any evidence produced that would persuade them, any more than that we will be able to persuade other hon. Friends of the need to grant permission for HS2 to pass through their constituencies, although in the Government’s view the test of very special circumstances may have been met.
I thought that I had made it clear in my speech—through reprising the 2008 and 2010 decisions, as well as the latest one—that the wordings have been almost identical; all that has happened is that the decision has changed. Neither my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) and I, nor our constituents, understands what special circumstances have suddenly occurred, given that there has always been the need for the SRFIs, which have been an economic imperative since 2006. We do not know what those circumstances are.
I entirely accept that my hon. Friend does not understand why there has been that shift in the assessment of whether the condition of very special circumstances has been fulfilled. I can only repeat that, although I cannot go into the reasons and the arguments behind them, the proposal is open to further challenge in the courts if necessary.
The policy on the green belt is clear, and I assure my hon. Friends that it genuinely has not changed. It is as it was set out in the national planning policy framework, which is the most important text on the green belt. However, the framework also has important text on the need to support sustainable development, stating that planning should
“proactively drive and support sustainable economic development to deliver the…business and industrial units, infrastructure and thriving local places that the country needs.”
It continues that local councils should
“develop strategies for the provision of viable infrastructure necessary to support sustainable development, including large scale facilities such as rail freight interchanges”.
The framework therefore captures the potential competition between two very important interests—that of preserving the green belt permanently as open space around towns, so preventing sprawl, and that of supporting sustainable development, specifically including—the framework is specific—
“large scale facilities such as rail freight interchanges”.
Of course, it is then up to the decision maker. As both my hon. Friends will be aware, local planning committees sometimes have to make a difficult decision between two competing demands in their local plan, and have to be able to explain to local people why they have come down on one side and not the other. Similarly, when the decision maker is an inspector or, in this case, the Secretary of State, there has to be a process of adjudicating, given the difficult tension between two priorities in the framework.
I completely accept that. The Minister mentions rail freight interchanges. Significantly, this one is a strategic rail freight interchange, which therefore means that there are also regulations about its having a sustainable work force. It has been acknowledged that this site will have no sustainable work force, and that there will be no economic regeneration. Indeed, it is anticipated that the work force will come from Luton, which is the very site area that wants a rail freight interchange. That is why there is incomprehension. That is what we do not understand; it is not that we cannot read the words on the page.
I do understand, and I profoundly regret that the decision letter has been as unsatisfying to my hon. Friends as it clearly has been. I would never have expected them to be persuaded by its contents, but I might at least have hoped that it would explain why a decision with which they disagreed had nevertheless been reached, and I regret that the letter clearly failed to do that.
I am afraid that I will again have to disappoint my hon. Friend. I am not permitted to comment further on the decision letters, either those produced earlier or the current one, but I nevertheless say that I wish such letters had been more satisfying to my hon. Friends, and had at least explained to them why the position seems to have changed in the decision letter about the Secretary of State being minded to allow the proposal.
In the remaining time, I simply say that the planning job is one of the most difficult ones at any level of government. I am not pleading for sympathy; I am simply observing that the job is one in which we have to balance very difficult and important but entirely contradictory or competing demands. Of course, a good planner tries to do whatever they can to resolve those demands, by finding a way as much as possible to meet both of them. However, there are some occasions—when building a new prison, new nuclear power station or, as we are discovering, a new vital high-speed rail infrastructure that will connect our major cities—when decisions unfortunately have to be made that will never be acceptable to local people or win their support, and which will always cause them a level of pain, misery and disappointment that they feel can never be alleviated by any mitigating measures. That is profoundly to be regretted, and is not something that any decision maker, whether a local councillor, an inspector or a Minister, does lightly or with relish.