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Reigate and Banstead Borough Council

Volume 557: debated on Wednesday 30 January 2013

I am grateful to you, Mr Sheridan, for allowing us to start a couple of minutes early, which is always helpful in such circumstances. I am grateful to have secured the opportunity to debate the core strategy of Reigate and Banstead borough council.

The strategy has been more than eight years in the making, since the introduction of the local development framework system in 2004. To say that the process has been fraught would be an understatement. There have been more than a dozen iterations, consultations, submissions, amendments and further amendments, and we are now in a public consultation period on further amendments that ends on 4 February. I intend my speech to be the basis of my contribution to the latest public consultation.

Before I get further into the details of process, which are of course where the devil sits, in an almost impenetrable fog of regulation, affordable housing needs assessments, employment and migration forecasts, judgments about housing demand and household social behaviour forecasts—all of which are being made against a framework of directives from the European Union overlaying national policy, overlaying regional plans, which may or may not be valid subject to potential judicial interpretations of EU law—let me highlight the key fact that something is badly awry with the process. Simply put, green fields in the green belt are being zoned for potential future development. That has had its first public presentation in the further amendments to the core strategy now being consulted on, and two sites for 500 to 700 homes each have been identified in technical papers supporting the consultation.

Unsurprisingly, as this wholly unexpected and unwelcome development has become public and people have realised that their interests are absolutely engaged in terms of local planning blight, the value of their property and the quality of their environment, they have started to express concern in debates in public meetings and on web pages. Greenfield development in the green belt, against the wishes of the local planning authority and its people, is surely a violation of two central tenets of our Government’s policy of localism and protection of the green belt. Set against what people rightly understand about our policy, what is being contemplated seems scandalous. How have we got into this position, and how can we get out of it?

Protection of the environment and the centrality of planning policy in my constituency have been plain to me ever since I first applied for the Conservative nomination back in 1997. The constituency is wholly within London’s metropolitan green belt and because of the ribbon developments down the A23 and the A217 the green belt is at its narrowest and most fragile. The villages to the north of the M25, which bisects the constituency east to west, including Banstead, Walton-on-the-Hill, Tadworth, Kingswood and Chipstead, have their own character and charm. Their individuality has been sustained by green belt protection and, before that, by the existence of substantial tracts of common land, and the determined policy of the borough council.

South of the M25 and the north downs area of high conservation value, the adjacent towns of Reigate and Redhill complement each other in age, style, history and planning policy. South of Reigate and Redhill are the significant housing areas of Woodhatch, South Park, Earlswood and Whitebushes, much of which was conceived as social housing development. Without the protection of the green belt those areas would have sprawled to envelop the villages of Salfords and Sidlow and form one continuous development into Horley and on into Crawley. However, those settlements enjoy abutting on to green fields, much of which make up the floodplain of the River Mole, which is a significant plus of living in those areas, which do not possess some of the architectural or downland charm of other parts of the constituency. It is that asset and the principle of preventing sprawl development that is now under long-term threat in the proposed core strategy of Reigate and Banstead.

It is not the purpose of this speech to criticise the position of the borough council or the inspectorate. In the end, they are the prisoners of the national planning process and if things are going self-evidently wrong in Reigate and Banstead, we must of course look to the Minister to put things right. He is the policy supervisor of the planning process, and I look forward to his response, both in reply to this debate and on a more considered basis over the weeks to come, about how to turn around the alarming environmental outlook for my constituents.

Having tried to paint a picture of my constituency, let me go into some of the detail. Reigate and Banstead borough has the largest population by district in the county, and it is projected to grow by 18% by 2027, mainly due to the large amount of development in recent years, which has attracted young families and therefore the highest birth rate in the county. It is far from being the largest borough. It is not as though the borough, despite the green belt designation of much of it and the entire Reigate constituency, has not done its bit in contributing to national housing need. The annual housing target at 500 houses per year since 2006-07 has seen 3,689 housing completions in that period, exceeding policy by more than 20%.

The infrastructure is under serious pressure. We are already short of two primary schools and we will shortly require a new secondary school. The local road network becomes paralysed as soon as there is trouble on the M25, as it is already beyond capacity. This time last year, we were panicking about future water supply, and today we are recovering from the latest occasion on which the River Mole burst its banks on Sunday. Development will only make flooding worse, not least because the major development flowing from the 1994 borough development plan saw water retention and run- off factors built into a development of nearly 2,000 homes on the encouragingly named Great Lake farm.

Taking all factors into consideration, the proposed housing target for the borough of 460 houses per year is unsustainable, and undermines the green belt and the principles of localism. Frankly, it also undermines any sensible national regional policy because enabling development in the south-east further undermines the economic prospects of England’s less prosperous regions. That number drives everything, and takes us into the contentious area of defined housing need, which the Government set and on which the inspectorate hangs its decisions.

What is our objectively assessed housing need? It is not something that local policy seems able to influence. It is a number, which in its latest iteration, has been spat out of the 2008 strategic housing market assessment. How that process was to be done was imposed by central Government, and is so complex that local authorities cede it to specialist consultants. That number, at 981 is nearly double the requirement produced by the discredited regional south-east plan. It includes market demand and a requirement to meet the needs of migration, the sensitivities of which were again reflected at Prime Minister’s questions today.

Reigate and Banstead borough council is about to submit a third draft of the core strategy to the Planning Inspectorate, the previous two drafts having been withdrawn due to the planning inspector’s non-acceptance of the plans on the grounds that, notwithstanding the council’s assurances on site allocations, he did not consider that they would meet the stipulated housing targets. Here, I would enter an important concern about the process.

Windfall sites have made up much of local provision over the past decade. That is hardly surprising when nearly every property owner stands to make a life-changing development gain for their family given local property prices if they can secure unrestricted planning permission. The inspector should be able, indeed required, to include that historical pattern in his review of the council’s ability to meet its housing target. The council, including all Conservative and Green councillors, whom I have found equally committed to the defence of the environment, has unanimously endorsed a housing target of 460 per annum. That is significantly higher than councillors would wish, in actuality, but on the strong advice of their officials, is the lowest practical target they believe they have a chance of defending. The council’s figure is taken from the south-east plan, which remains in place due to the impact of EU regulation. I seem presciently to have predicted in my maiden speech in June 1997 that that would happen.

It should be deeply ironic to any Conservative that the core of the Conservative borough’s case is that to be allowed a strategy that will give it a measure of local control, it must rely on a regional plan, which Conservatives wish to abolish, but cannot because of EU regulation that Conservatives oppose, to give it a housing target that is unsustainable and inconsistent with any sensible balance of environmental and economic policy, compared with one that would be utterly catastrophic if consistent with central Government’s 2008 formulation of a strategic housing market assessment that could hold sway otherwise.

The threat of a much larger number being imposed by inspectors at planning appeals driven by developers, some of whom have already land-banked parts of the green belt in the absence of an authorised local plan, is forcing the council’s hand to contemplate future development it would otherwise not want. Under that impossible pressure, the borough council has had to issue for consultation a third draft core strategy, which refers to green belt development by way of two large but undefined urban extensions in the south of the borough, and holds out the prospect of future development around the village of Salfords after 2027.

All that is deeply inimical to the interests of my constituents who, left to their own devices with their representatives, could properly balance economic, environmental and social pressures. However, we now have a situation in which every strategic objective of our policy, be it localism, protection of the green belt, or a sensible regional balance across the country between the economy and the environment, is being undermined by how planning policy is delivered in practice.

As ever, my hon. Friend makes a powerful case for his constituents and his constituency. Does he agree that many of the voters in Surrey, which includes my seat as well as his, gave us their vote at the last election because they believed that we would protect the green belt, and they felt that we believed in localism, which was a central tenet of our manifesto? That is what they want to see MPs, our council and our Government deliver now.

I am extremely grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. He neatly makes the point that I will come to next in my peroration.

Clarity is required for my constituents, their councillors and the inspectorate on which national policy trumps which: the delivery of local autonomy through meeting perceived national housing need, or the protection of the green belt? Our rhetoric implies—this is the point that my hon. Friend made, with which I absolutely agree—that the green belt has priority when those two clash, as they do in my constituency. I hope that the Minister can make it clear that that is the reality of our policy as well.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, and I apologise that you were not informed that I was going to be replying to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) on securing this debate on a matter of great importance, both to his constituents and to the constituents of many other hon. Members around the country. He referred to his prescience in his maiden speech, and I am sure it surprises none of us that he was prescient on that matter, as on many other things.

As I hope my hon. Friend will understand, because of my role being a strange beast, in that it is quasi-judicial, I will not be able to go into the details of his constituency and how planning policy and the recommendation that authorities produce a local plan affect it. I am not familiar with the situation, and it would be wrong of me to prejudge any decisions, but I hope that I can provide an explanation and even some reassurance about what national policy demands of local authorities that are producing local plans.

I hope that my hon. Friend will not take exception to my starting with what I think are the fundamentals: what are planning and the planning process all about? Any of us who have served as local councillors, whether on the planning committee or having represented our wards in front of planning committees, know that planning is an attempt to reconcile competing demands and make difficult trade-offs on behalf of the people we represent. Very few planning decisions are easy and no planning decisions are universally popular, but we believe, as I know he does, that the people who are best placed to make those difficult trade-offs are those who are closest to the people such decisions affect.

The national planning policy framework was the Government’s attempt to take a blizzard of planning policy that we had inherited—not only from the previous Government but from a series of Governments—and clarify and simplify it, so that there were a relatively limited number of national policy priorities that each locality needed to reconcile in its own way. One of those policy priorities is housing need, and it is probably on that priority that our performance, as a country, is most disappointing over the longest period of time.

Over 30 or 40 years, we have failed to build enough houses to meet the housing need of our population. My hon. Friend was absolutely right to single out the previous Government’s failure to control the level of immigration as a contributor to that need. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister mentioned during Prime Minister’s questions today, 2 million people in a decade moved to the UK. Of those, 1.7 million moved to England. Our population has grown largely because of an immigration policy that none of us—I apologise, Mr Sheridan, I do not mean to include you in this—supported. The Government are now trying to bring that under control, but we have to accept that those people now live here and have a right to do so.

Although that is a big contributor to the housing need of the country, it is not the only one. Something that we can all feel happier about is the fact that people are living longer, and as a result, there is a natural growth in the number of households. If people live into their 80s and 90s, while people are still being born, an increase in the number of households will inevitably be created, with each household having an entirely legitimate right to expect a home of their own.

The fact remains that the planning system that we inherited in 2010 had, for 30 or 40 years, failed to deliver the level of housing that we needed to meet the growth in the number of households. What is extraordinary is that it did not even meet the housing need between 2000 and 2010, when we had a booming economy and the loosest credit conditions that anybody had ever seen. In no year in that decade did we, as a country, build enough houses to meet our need. That priority is important. It is stated in the national planning policy framework and is one of the Government policies that every local plan must meet, but, of course, it is not the only one.

I would like to register a concern about the definition of housing need. The danger is that it starts to look like “predict and provide”. There are other ways in which housing policy and household formation policy will adapt to how many houses there are. I want to be careful about an approach that simply says, “We must have this number of houses, because these things are happening elsewhere.” The other things that are happening—in terms of household formation, when children leave home, and how rapidly or otherwise families break up—can change, and they will change in the face of economic pressures, some of which will come from housing shortage.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but as I think he would agree, although we should feel comfortable with some adaptations, as he puts it, we should be profoundly uncomfortable with others. An adaptation with which we were all comfortable—the Government have therefore taken steps to facilitate it—is the idea that redundant buildings, such as offices, should be easily converted to housing, so that that can go some way to meeting that housing need. Every office that we can convert into housing is a bit of land that no longer needs to be built on to create new housing. I think we would all agree with that kind of adaptation.

However, two adaptations are taking place in our country that no Conservative, and probably no Member of Parliament, can feel entirely comfortable about. The first is the number of working people in their 20s and 30s who still have to live with their parents, or sometimes have to share a room, because they cannot afford to get a place of their own. The second is certain young families with young children, who have no prospect of ever being able to afford a place of their own with a bit of garden that the children can play in as they grow up. Neither my hon. Friend nor I would be comfortable with such an adaptation, which is clearly a response to the astonishingly high prices and lack of affordability of housing.

I do not want to dwell too long on that point, because that would imply that it is the only policy priority of the Government, when it is not. It is important for every local authority area to come up with a plan that meets its fair share of the housing need. However, the national planning policy framework, which was brought in under the auspices of the Localism Act 2011, is very clear about the protection of the green belt. That is of the utmost importance; its permanence and openness is vital, and the NPPF is absolutely explicit about the importance of preserving that.

The figures that we have are relatively encouraging—again, I refer to what is happening nationwide, and not to my hon. Friend’s constituency—as the amount of green belt has gone up in the past 10 years, and the amount of building that has taken place on the green belt is tiny. The number of times when and the number of places where the green belt is encroached on is still, I am glad to say, very small. It is very rare and is done as a result of a local authority going through the process of a local plan and working out which bits of green belt it is in the interests of the entire community to surrender for some kind of development in order to balance the competing demands of the community.

I want us to be clear on the starting position for the national Government, given that green belt is a national policy designed to protect us from the sprawl that would otherwise happen in terms of development. The Government start from the position that the green belt should be protected, and policies that lead to the green belt being encroached on violate that principal objective of Government policy.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is an absolutely core tenet of Government policy that the green belt should be protected. It is also an absolutely core tenet of Government policy that housing need should be met. That is why localism is difficult and not a free lunch for anybody—we are devolving the matter to local authorities, in their communities, to resolve that very difficult tension between competing policy demands.

It is not terribly difficult. If the entire country were green belt, it would be difficult, but the entire country is not green belt, for very obvious reasons, and green belt is restricted to certain areas to stop towns simply growing for ever and there being no space. That is why green-belt policy exists. I gently put it to the Minister that it is not a very difficult tension to reconcile; indeed, it is essential that it is reconciled in favour of the green belt.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, of course, that the green belt does not cover everywhere. It does cover, nevertheless, a very substantial proportion of land. Interestingly, it covers more land, as a percentage of the total, than all the land that is currently developed in any way; 13% is in the green belt and only 8.9%, in the whole of England, is built on or even used for gardens in any form of development. The green belt is bigger than the total of all towns, cities, villages and all other kinds of uses.

It is absolutely the case that it is the function of the green belt, as the green lung, to prevent cities from splurging into each other, which is what has happened in the United States and in other countries. We absolutely do not want that to happen in England. Nevertheless, the green belt is a substantial proportion of land, and it has always been the case that local authorities have, by their own choice, through local consultation and the local plan process, sometimes varied it in small ways in order to meet community needs.

There are other policy objectives. My hon. Friend referred to them, and I want to make it clear that they, too, find their place in the national planning policy framework. I am referring to the broad idea of sustainability on all levels. He is absolutely right that infrastructure of all kinds needs to keep pace with the demands that are placed on it, and it is incumbent on the local authority to make those plans and not to encourage, welcome or accept development that is not adequately supported by infrastructure.

Another kind of sustainability, although in a sense it is all one concept, is environmental sustainability. My hon. Friend referred to the threat of flooding, and it is of course clearly a national policy in the framework that houses should not be built in areas of high flood risk unless there are flood defences or some other form of mitigation to prevent floods from affecting those houses.

I would like to say something that I fear may be somewhat unsatisfying to my hon. Friend. We as a Government cannot make the choices between these different priorities. All we ask the inspectorate to do, and all the inspectorate can do—I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that the inspectorate should not be blamed for this, because we make the policy and the inspectorate, like a judge, just tries to interpret that policy—is to look and see whether it believes that a local authority has adequately measured its housing need, assessed the sustainability concerns, looked at all the different policy requirements in the national planning policy framework and given due weight to all of them in the difficult attempt to achieve a resolution. I completely accept that in constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s, for local authorities such as Reigate and Banstead, that difficult task is probably more difficult than it is for almost any other local authority in the country.

I am extremely grateful for my hon. Friend’s generosity in giving way again. When he spoke about green-belt development—I want to bring him back to that—he used the term “the community”, and I absolutely endorse that. The local community may be able to see a reason for developing on the green belt, as Reigate and Banstead did, with my support and everyone else’s support, when it developed proper access to the Holmethorpe industrial estate and then created a development of approximately 500 homes, now called Watercolour. That was entirely supported. It involved access underneath the London to Brighton railway line and it tidied up access to an important industrial estate in Redhill. That was a very good example of the community driving development.

What the Minister has not said, though—I want to bring him back to this—is that green belt is a national policy. We are dealing with the consequences of two national requirements. One is the housing numbers, and I would challenge how those numbers are acquired. I would also challenge other points. If children have to leave home slightly later because we are protecting the environment in our country and see that as a priority, so be it. If we make this country a less attractive place for immigration because there is a housing shortage, so be it. We protect the environment for our children and successive generations. The Minister and I may disagree on that, but that is a perfectly proper debate to have. But on this issue, the green belt is a national policy to protect cities from expanding ever outwards. Reigate and Banstead is now dealing with the contradiction between the two. I just want him to give an indication that it is fine for the community to seek development in the green belt, but not fine if it is done otherwise, in which case there will always be questions about why it is happening.

I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s concern to ensure that any changes to the green belt in his local authority area, in his constituency, are decided by his local authority. It is of course the case that although we very strongly encourage local authorities to produce a local plan, they are not compelled to do so. There is no obligation on them. No councillor will go to prison if they do not produce a local plan. However, we believe that even when the process of producing that local plan requires them to take intensely difficult decisions, some of which may not be very popular with local people, that is nevertheless a better position for them and their community to be in than to have no local plan at all. If there is no local plan, all applications will be speculative in a sense, because there will not be a plan to go by. All applications will be judged according to the national planning policy framework.

Of course, although the inspectorate can advise a local authority on how to make its local plan robust and suggest things that it might want to consider so that the local plan will pass examination and be adopted, it is entirely for the local authority to decide what it wants to have in its local plan. If it does not agree with the advice that it is getting or does not want to take up any of the suggestions that come from the inspectorate, it is entirely within its power to resist those suggestions and to decide either to put forward something else as a plan or not to have a plan at all. But what is the case—

May I just finish? I do not feel that I answered my hon. Friend’s previous question.

There is indeed a national policy about the green belt—that we should protect it, that it should be permanent and open. There is also a national policy that we must meet our housing need. Those two policies and many others about sustainability and about economic growth are all contained within the national planning policy framework, and it is for local authorities such as his to carry out the difficult task of achieving all those objectives within their local plan.