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York (Green Belt)

Volume 565: debated on Wednesday 3 July 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne, for what is, I think, the first time. The subject of the debate is an incredibly important issue, not only for my constituency and the City of York, but for the rest of our great county of Yorkshire and the many other historic and beautiful cathedral cities across the country.

The green belt is absolutely necessary to protect the rural countryside for which this country is renowned, but it also protects the character and setting of our cities, and prevents suburban sprawl. Without it, I have little doubt that some of the most culturally and economically important cities in the country would be changed beyond all recognition. The green belt covers 4 million acres of land across England, and serves five main purposes: stopping urban sprawl; preventing coalescence—the joining together—of local settlements; safeguarding the countryside from encroachment; protecting the setting of historic towns and cities; and encouraging urban regeneration.

The importance of the green belt, particularly in carrying out the stated aims, is well secured in the national planning policy framework—NPPF—which states:

“The fundamental aim of Green Belt…is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence.”

Sadly, in York the permanence of the green belt is being dramatically tested. City of York council’s draft local plan is currently out for consultation, and I speak on behalf of the vast majority of my constituents when I say that many of the proposals in the plan are deeply concerning.

For decades, City of York council, under Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour leaderships, has failed to designate the green belt around the city, which has acted as a blight on development. Does my hon. Friend—I call him that because he is a friend—agree that designation should go ahead, even if he does not agree with the precise details and wants changes to the proposed local plan? Does he agree with the principle of designating a green-belt area around our city?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is right and proper that we finalise the green belt in the local plan. That was always the intention. It was the intention in previous local plans that were sadly thrown out by the inspector for a number of different reasons. However, I believe that in the process of finalising the green-belt boundaries in the new local plan, sacrificing more than 2,000 acres of green-belt land and potentially changing the setting and character of our great city for generations to come is a sacrifice too far. Although the draft plan makes the green belt permanent, it sadly threatens the very fibre of York’s existing green belt.

The council has proposed a staggering 22,000 homes over the 15 to 20-year lifetime of the plan, which is a vastly over-ambitious and completely unsustainable figure, but perhaps what concerns me most is the fact that more than 16,000 of the proposed homes are to be placed on more than 1,400 acres of York’s green belt. In trying to fulfil what can only be described as over-inflated targets, the council not only proposes radically to alter the make-up of a number of communities in my constituency by extending them dramatically but to develop two entirely new towns on York’s already deeply congested road network—the Minister has witnessed that congestion at first hand.

In one of the proposed towns, which is known as Winthorpe in the draft local plan, more than 5,500 new homes have been proposed on nearly 500 acres of prime agricultural land. Although it is not a conservation zone per se, the land is home to an array of important wildlife, including protected water voles. In addition, the council has proposed a 4,000-home town on more than 300 acres to the north of the city, again on high-grade food-producing land. Sadly, however, that has not fulfilled the council’s hungry appetite for devouring green-belt land, and in many areas of my constituency it has sectioned off hundreds more acres, which are deceptively termed “safeguarded land”. At first glance, one might think that the land was safeguarded from development, but sadly it is safeguarded for future development, in the longer term. The terminology in the NPPF regarding safeguarded land is, sadly, causing confusion, and could be used by local authorities such as City of York council to brush proposals under the carpet by failing to explain safeguarded land properly to the wider public, including in any so-called public consultations. I therefore urge the Minister to consider amending the terminology used in the NPPF to prevent any further confusion about the definition of safeguarded land.

In total, the land safeguarded for future development in York—land taken out of the green belt—stands at just short of 1,000 acres, which means that the full development burden on York’s green belt from the draft local plan amounts to well over 2,000 acres, as I have mentioned. Sadly, that is not all that City of York council has proposed for the green belt. Adding insult to injury for all those who care passionately about protecting York’s picturesque rural setting, the council had proposed 40 potential sites for wind farms, encircling the city. York is evidently the first local authority to go down that route in its local plan, and one has to wonder why, because if the plan is realised it will be hugely damaging for York and for those who live in and around the city. In essence, the wind farms could change the character and setting of the city beyond all recognition. The proposals could also have a sustained negative impact on the local tourism industry, with York’s standing as a beautiful, cultural and historic holiday destination sadly diminishing.

Perhaps what has caused most controversy in my constituency are the proposals in the council’s draft local plan for more than 80 Traveller and showpeople pitches. My constituents are not only perplexed by the quantity of pitches proposed—they believe that the number is being justified by an exaggerated calculation of need—but, like me, they are astonished by the locations put forward, all of which are on green-belt land. That is against Government guidance, in which Traveller sites on green-belt land are deemed inappropriate developments. In the award-winning village of Dunnington, where a 15-pitch Traveller site has been proposed, local residents are understandably concerned that such a site on the green gateway into the village will, without a doubt, be hugely detrimental to Dunnington’s character and setting.

Knapton is a tiny, peaceful village on the outskirts of York. It is very close to my hon. Friend’s constituency of York Central, and I am sure that he will have received representations on the proposal for the village. If the council gets its way, Knapton will become home to 20 travelling showpeople families. The guidance states that each showpeople pitch must be 0.25 sq km, which would mean that Knapton residents could be facing a site larger than the village itself.

The NPPF and supporting documents refer specifically to the need for such sites to be smaller than the nearest settled community, so Knapton residents are astonished by the council’s proposal. Needless to say, those proposals are entirely inappropriate both for the villages concerned and for York’s green belt as a whole.

I remain steadfast in my support for localism. I believe that the Government were absolutely right to give local authorities and communities more say over development. The NPPF clearly places the emphasis on local authorities in the drawing up of development plans, but given what the council has proposed, I wonder whether it paid any attention whatever to the rest of the NPPF when it drew up its draft local plan. For example, one core planning policy principle is recognition of the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside, but the council seems to have disregarded the sanctity of York’s countryside and surroundings and, sadly, to be treating them as a bargaining tool for eager developers. Planning policy is clear about the need to prioritise brownfield sites.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, especially as we do not see entirely eye to eye on the green belt. He is about to discuss brownfield sites. I am strongly committed to the development of housing on brownfield sites such as the former sugar factory site—the former Terry’s factory site—that is going ahead, and the York central site. York has had strong growth in jobs over recent decades, which is driving up housing prices for both rent and sale. Does he agree that development needs to be balanced, with housing development on brownfield sites in the city centre as well as in suburban settings in his constituency?

I agree with part of that intervention. We need sustainable development and a plan that is sustainable and works for the whole of the city. My main argument is that the council’s plan is not sustainable; it is really damaging to the character and setting of the city, given that 1,000 acres of green-belt land will be taken out for development.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the need for brownfield sites to be prioritised, as is stated in the national planning policy framework. As he mentioned, York has many large and strategically important brownfield sites, yet—this is where we part company—the council has decided to change the emphasis on those sites so that more are used for employment-based development. That has significantly increased the housing burden on the green belt, but what really worries me is that it also calls into question the viability of brownfield sites under the council’s shifting policy. I mentioned at the outset that the fifth main purpose of the green belt is to encourage urban regeneration, but if we rip up thousands of acres of green-belt land around York, where is the incentive to develop such strategic brownfield sites?

The NPPF states that local plans should be “aspirational but realistic”. The council’s draft local plan fulfils the former word, but completely ignores the latter. The council appears to base what I describe as its over-ambitious housing targets on completely unrealistic job growth forecasts that suggest that York will create close to 1,000 jobs a year for the next 15 to 20 years. I am optimistic about York’s economic prospects, and I work closely with my hon. Friend on delivering that, but the figures suggested by the council are off the mark. The York job market has contracted over the past eight years, which calls into question the way in which the council has linked job growth to housing need. That must be closely examined.

The NPPF is clear on the need for sustainable development, but, as I have mentioned, the draft local plan is profoundly unsustainable. York is a small historic city, in which local infrastructure is under strain. To add tens of thousands of homes could mean tens of thousands more cars on already overcrowded and congested roads, and I have not even touched on flooding and drainage issues, as well as the strain on health and school facilities.

The road network in York’s green belt is of particular concern. The Campaign to Protect Rural England reports that York has only 8 metres of public rights of way per hectare, which is just over half the national average. With an average build-out rate of 400 homes a year on any one site, York will be surrounded by construction sites for years to come. I am deeply concerned that added construction traffic will cause the city to grind to a halt. What will that do for the wider local economy?

All the while, the council has no guarantee that it will secure the necessary investment in our infrastructure. Its policy very much puts the cart before the horse. In my mind, the council must absolutely reduce the figures in the local plan to a more sustainable and manageable level. Even its commissioned reports indicate that its highly inflated figures will be difficult to deliver.

Global food security is swiftly becoming one of the most important issues that faces the future of the human race. The importance of productive agricultural land in helping to secure food supply is rightly recognised in the NPPF. In York’s green belt, 30% of the land is grade 1 or grade 2, and it is some of the best and most versatile land. That is nearly double the national average, so why does the council want to develop thousands of acres of fertile, food-producing land?

York’s green belt is a bastion of good environmental practice, with 56% of its agricultural land subject to Natural England funding to support environmentally sensitive farming. York’s environment is certainly worth protecting, with 3% of the green belt registered as sites of special scientific interest, alongside a further 50 acres that is devoted to local nature reserves—for example, the Hassacarr nature reserve in Dunnington, which is adjacent to land on which the council is proposing a 15-pitch Traveller site.

York’s green belt is clearly under threat. Based on the series of packed-out public meetings I have held in my constituency during the past few weeks, I believe that the vast majority of my constituents support my view. York’s local plan is only in its draft—I emphasise, draft—phase and is currently out to public consultation, but I remain deeply concerned that City of York council is using the localism aspect of the NPPF to enable it to ignore the rest of that document.

Sadly, the ruling administration on the council is not interested in formulating a plan that is in the best interests of all—I stress, all—York residents, but I know that local communities will rise above the style of smoke-and-mirrors politics that it appears to conduct locally and will be united and resolute in their opposition to the plan. If the plan is implemented, it could turn a beautiful historic cathedral city, surrounded by green-belt land, into a west Yorkshire suburb of Leeds, by destroying the very land that captures its beauty, as it has done for centuries.

I fear that, in spite of the opposition of the residents whom it is supposed to represent, the council will push ahead with its proposals. I therefore conclude by asking my right hon. Friend the Minister what advice the Government can give my constituents, who are desperate to protect York’s green belt from the threats posed by the council’s draft local plan. In turn, what advice can the Government give the local authority to ensure that its plan is representative of the wants and needs of all York residents, not just those in the ruling administration?

In closing, I want to add my voice to recent calls for an amendment to the NPPF, the better to strengthen the protections afforded to green-belt land and to prevent unruly local authorities from using localism as a means of disregarding all other planning policies.

It is a pleasure, Mrs Osborne, to serve under your chairmanship for the first time. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) for having invited me, a few months ago, to visit the fair city of York and, as he pointed out, to spend a certain amount of time stationary in a traffic jam, which did of course allow me to appreciate some of the wider environmental beauties of the city. He was kind, but too kind, to me; I might be honourable, but I am rarely right, and I am certainly not yet right honourable.

Let me start by clarifying green belt policy in the national planning policy framework. Although my hon. Friend referred to it, it is important to understand quite how clear and how strong that policy is. Paragraph 79 of the NPPF says:

“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; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence.”

That could not be clearer, which is why, when we were going through the process of revoking the regional strategies that were so unpopular and that also failed to deliver their own targets, we listened to representations from my hon. Friend and many others that we should save the policies in the regional strategy for Yorkshire and Humberside to ensure that protection for the green belt around the city of York should remain, until that can be permanently defined in the local plan. I certainly welcome the fact that there is now a local plan process under way in York—it is long overdue—and that that will involve a determination of the boundaries of the green belt of York for the long term. The NPPF says:

“Once established, Green Belt boundaries should only be altered in exceptional circumstances, through the preparation or review of the Local Plan. At that time, authorities should consider the Green Belt boundaries having regard to their intended permanence in the long term, so that they should be capable of enduring beyond the plan period.”

It is important that the conversation that is taking place in York at the moment has a lasting outcome.

The priority that we give to the green belt has also been recently reflected in a written ministerial statement published by the noble Baroness Hanham in the other place. She made it clear that we will be looking more closely at applications for Traveller sites in the green belt, and that we will consider calling in more of those applications than we have in the past, because we are concerned about the balance of policy, as set out in the NPPF. We recognise that there is a need to provide sites for Travellers, as there is a need to provide housing for all members of the community, but it must be properly balanced against the protections for the green belt. We do have a concern that, in recent decisions, that balance has not been completely right.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have also clarified our views on the siting of renewable energy infrastructure, especially onshore wind turbines. Recently, on 6 June, the Secretary of State said that the Government will issue new planning practice guidance to assist local councils in their consideration of local plans and individual applications. That will set out clearly that

“the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and…decisions should take into account the cumulative impact of wind turbines and properly reflect the increasing impact on (a) the landscape and (b) local amenity as the number of turbines in the area increases”.—[Official Report, 6 June 2013; Vol. 563, c. 114W.]

I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that those two decisions, on Traveller sites and on wind farm applications, show that we are determined to protect and reassert the protections for the green belt that are contained in the national planning policy framework.

It is important to note that, as the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) pointed out, York has an intense housing need. That is evidenced by the house prices in the city of York, which are well ahead of many of the other communities in the area. The NPPF is clear also that it is the responsibility of every local authority in its local plan to make provision for that housing need and specifically to bring forward sites that are immediately deliverable and developable to meet that housing need over the next five years. That, too, is an important priority in the national planning policy framework.

In a sense, the Government and I make no apology for the fact that we do not believe that it is right for Ministers to decide how any local community should balance the important priorities in the NPPF. That is something that can only happen through a local conversation between all parties about a local plan. I welcome the fact that that local conversation has now started. It was a great abdication of responsibility by previous councils that they failed, over many decades, to conclude that conversation.

My hon. Friend is absolutely entitled, encouraged and empowered to take part in that local conversation and to represent the views of his constituents as eloquently and as passionately as he has today. It is not for me as a Minister, nor for any other Minister, to interfere in that conversation or to indicate that one particular policy in the national planning policy framework is more important in a particular set of circumstances than another policy. The importance of the protections for the green belt is clear. The protections are clearer than they were in any previous set of national policy, but so, too, is the requirement to meet housing need.

Almost the most important thing in the national planning policy framework and in the Government’s overall approach to planning—I hope this will provide some reassurance to my hon. Friend—is that development must be sustainable. That means that the development proposed in any local plan must be sustainable, and that any individual planning decision to allow for certain developments must also demonstrate that the particular application is sustainable—environmentally, economically and in terms of the transport infrastructure. All those things are important, and there is no point for any local authority anywhere in the land to propose development in a local plan that is transparently not sustainable, which is where the role of the Planning Inspectorate comes in through the examination.

When the draft has been consulted on and a final draft has been produced, the local plan will be presented for examination by the inspector. My hon. Friend will have, at that point, yet another opportunity to make the arguments on behalf of his constituents as to why he feels that elements of the plan, if it has not been amended by that point, are still not sustainable. The inspector will consider all the evidence and submissions in making a final determination as to whether the plan is acceptable.

I am afraid that, because of that process, I must resist my hon. Friend’s plea for an amendment to the national planning policy framework. It is perhaps a disease that all politicians on both sides of the House suffer from, and I am certainly not immune to it, to think that the answer to every particular problem is a change in national policy. I fear that that is not the case. The virtue of the national planning policy framework is that it is crystal clear, but it will only retain that virtue if it remains stable, and if we are not permanently fiddling with it to try to suit it to a particular circumstance. None the less, I can reassure my hon. Friend that the protections for the green belt are very strong, and he has all the arguments well marshalled to make his case in the local plan process.

Sitting suspended.