Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Claire Perry.)
I am proud to represent a constituency that extends from the hill farms of Dartmoor to the coast, encompassing some of the loveliest areas of outstanding natural beauty. I am proud, too, to say that we are very much open for business, despite the recent battering from the storms.
I am fortunate to have lived and worked in rural Dartmoor for 21 years. I have no conflict of interest in this debate, but I have real concerns about the unintended consequences if we proceed with permitted development rights without the need for planning permission to convert up to three dwellings or to replace existing farm buildings across rural Dartmoor and areas of outstanding natural beauty. I commend the Minister for his comments and entirely agree about the need to address the inter- generational unfairness that exists within housing. We should allow people to aspire to affordable housing. I absolutely agree that we need to build more homes, but we need to build homes that people can afford to live in. That is my concern.
Permitted development rights would allow buildings of up to 150 square metres—nearly twice the guideline amount for affordable housing—so we will see development of larger properties. Within AONBs and the national parks—the measure will affect all 10 national parks—I fear that that will lead to the creation of more second homes and luxury homes, rather than the affordable housing that we need to breathe life into our rural communities. I hope that the Minister will also look at the unintended consequences. As he will know, one of the chief ways to lever in exception sites is deployed when landowners know that there is no other mechanism to obtain planning permission. That is a genuine concern, and we have already seen a chilling effect on land prices and the availability of affordable land for development.
There is a further concern. The historic farmstead survey of Dartmoor looks at pre-1914 farmsteads, of which there are 1,100 across Dartmoor. Each of those has three to four outbuildings. Clearly, not all of those would be suitable for development, but it is estimated that around 2,000 would be suitable for conversion, and that is within Dartmoor alone. That does not include the 1,500 to 2,000 properties that are non-heritage buildings. So we are potentially looking at up to 4,000 properties, each of which could be converted to three dwellings. On top of that is all the accompanying infrastructure in terms of driveways and parking.
There is a real concern in our national parks about the impact that such development could have on our landscapes, but even more important is what will happen when we lose 4,000 farm buildings from the moor. If there are 4,000 fewer farm buildings, there is less agriculture on the moor. Having lived for two decades on Dartmoor, I have seen the changes that there have been to grazing. If cattle and sheep are lost from moorland, there is a degradation from heather towards gorse. It is important that we keep farming on the moor. In lower lying areas, we are already seeing more pony paddocks and we are losing the unique environment that is part of the reason why tourists come to Dartmoor in the first place. The landscape that we see across the moor is critical to our environment.
As the name of my constituency suggests, half of it falls within the South Downs national park, the newest one to be created. Was not the whole purpose of creating national parks that protection of the landscape should have primacy wherever there is a conflict with economic development? We are at risk of losing that if we allow the creation of a suburbia within the national parks and inappropriate development, new haciendas and gin palaces, instead of maintaining the character of the parks and the landscape, which was precisely why they were created.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We do not want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg—the very reason why people come to Dartmoor. The creation of the national parks was described as the people’s charter for fresh air. These are crucially important landscapes for us to protect. Overdevelopment would destroy that. This is not about saying that we should stop all development within national parks. All of us recognise the need to support hill farmers. They may be asset-rich but they survive on very low cash flows.
I broadly agree with my hon. Friend’s argument that we do not want to see overdevelopment in our national parks, or major development of any kind, but does she agree that some of our national park authorities have been over-negative in the past in not allowing reasonable and sympathetic development, which perhaps would persuade the Minister, who I know is listening very carefully to my every word, that we do not need a sledgehammer to crack a nut and there is some compromise to be had?
I entirely agree. A lot of this is about streamlining the processes; but I know that the national parks want to support affordable housing. Within the national park the average house price is in excess of £270,000. That is nine times the median income, and 16 times the lower quartile income, so we do need development.
I have some experience of this scenario in the Snowdonia national park. Does my hon. Friend agree that some of the buildings she refers to are unsuitable for agriculture these days, and if we just leave them, they will deteriorate over time and will not be of any attraction to tourists either?
My hon. Friend adds to the point that we are not asking for no development across our national parks, but rather for discretion on a case-by-case basis. Absolutely, they must support farmers. We want farmers to have the ability to diversify, but we do not want a wholesale shift towards development, with farmers losing agriculture and moving entirely towards running holiday businesses and letting properties. It is a matter of degree. Yes, I would like to join him in encouraging national parks to support development, but to do so in a sustainable way that recognises the importance of keeping agriculture and sustaining our most precious and fragile ecosystems across the country for all our national parks. That applies not only to national parks, but to areas of outstanding natural beauty—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Claire Perry.)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing an Adjournment debate on such an important topic. Does she share my concern that removing such buildings from agricultural use means taking away a route for young entrants into farming and preventing them from engaging in the farming community?
I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing the matter before the House for consideration. I represent Strangford, a constituency in Northern Ireland that is just as beautiful as her own—perhaps a little more beautiful, in my opinion—and also an area of outstanding natural beauty. Strict planning controls laid down by the Northern Ireland Assembly enable farmers to build their dwellings but at the same time retain the countryside. Does she feel that that example in Northern Ireland could be followed here on the UK mainland?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, reiterating what many hon. Members have said. This is not about saying that there should be no development; it is about allowing controlled development on a case-by-case basis, rather than having an automatic permitted development right, which I think could lead to something altogether different and entirely unintended by the Minister.
Councillor Elizabeth Bennett, a parish councillor in South Pool, has made an important point about the effect on localism, which I know the Minister feels very passionate about. He has made the point that localism does not mean that we should see no development at all, because communities have to take responsibility for supplying housing for local people. It is about deciding where and how that takes place. The current arrangements deny parish councils the ability to comment on planning proposals.
Councillor Elizabeth Bennett also raised the concern about communities such as South Pool never being able to attain access to exception sites because they are not on a bus route and do not have the amenities of a village school. Nevertheless, those communities are desperately short of housing for local people. In fact, South Pool has some of the highest property values in the country. The ratios between earnings and property value are in excess of 10, so any access to local housing is entirely beyond the means of local people. Will the Minister look at extending that access so that projects such as the wonderful village housing initiative can be encouraged to bring in more exception sites within areas of outstanding natural beauty.
This is not about asking for no development; it is about asking for the right development, and for homes that people actually live in. I would not wish the Minister to think that I am saying that all second homes are bad. As he knows, many second home owners become permanent residents within a few years. They bring in a huge amount of income to local communities, particularly when they let out their properties when they are not using them. However, it is a matter of degree and scale, and he will know that there are many parts of our AONBs and national parks where the balance has shifted too far in the direction of second home owners. That can lead to dormitory communities where the lights are hardly ever on, except in season and at the weekends.
Much of the debate so far has been about Dartmoor, half of which is in my constituency, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the opportunity to contribute. I agree with her that we do not want some kind of blanket arrangement that would allow absolutely every application to convert a barn into a residential dwelling. We need to cherry-pick the right options, as she has suggested. What changes to the current planning arrangements, as exercised by Dartmoor national park, for example, does she think would introduce that flexibility in the appropriate manner?
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour from Dartmoor for making that point. The change I would like to see would give our national parks and AONBs the ability to opt out of the arrangements as they stand in allowing automatic permitted development rights. I would like a change in the wording so that they have more powers to lever in land for affordable housing developments, because that is what we crucially need for our communities. My hon. Friend will know about the effect whereby we lose young people and families from rural communities, which might mean that we cannot find nurses who will work in a community hospital or, on the coast, we find that there are not enough people to man the lifeboats.
It is really important that young people and families are able to live, work and volunteer within our local communities. I would love to see whether the Minister can bring in any measures to make that easier so that we can genuinely get affordable housing rather than asking for a change to no housing. We must recognise that our national parks and AONBs need our protection; they do not need unrestricted permitted development rights. I hope that the Minister will give some encouragement to the national parks and all those who love them that there will be a change to the wording.
In order to cheer my hon. Friend up a bit, may I ask my hon. Friend whether she thinks that the Government are exercising a degree of expectation management? The proposal that national parks such as the New Forest should be open to this sort of unregulated development is so preposterous that I cannot help wondering whether it has been put up as a kite so that the Government can then dismiss it and make a great concession by doing the obvious thing, which is to exclude places like the New Forest and Dartmoor from these ridiculous provisions. I wonder whether she agrees with the New Forest National Park Authority, which says:
“It will make a mockery of our planning rules when a resident in Southampton will still need planning permission for a dormer window, but three houses can be built in the middle of the New Forest National Park”
without any such permission?
I thank my hon. Friend. His final point is very pertinent, but I do not share his cynicism, because I know that the Minister is absolutely committed to the important aspiration for people to be able to have access to housing. Having lived on Dartmoor for a long time and seen the pressures that people are under, I feel that there are genuinely some unintended consequences that I hope he will encourage us to address.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that people in my constituency use Dartmoor very regularly and do not want to see it deteriorate at all? Conservation at the national park is a great asset to the local community.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. This is not just about people who live within national parks and AONBs but those who use them and feel passionately about their importance and the need to conserve this very precious landscape.
It would really help us all to hear the Minister’s comments on the many wonderful projects that are out there encouraging affordable housing. I know that he has visited Don Lang of the Land Society. I am very encouraged to hear today’s comments by the Secretary of State about how we can bring down costs for self-builders. It would be helpful if the Minister were able to elaborate on that. I hope that he is able to provide the reassurance we are all seeking that we will not see unrestrained building across our national parks but, rightly, the building of affordable housing that sustains living communities and brings young people and families back into our national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.
I hope it is not cheeky of me to observe that the best debates and discussions tend to take place within the Conservative party with a contribution from the Democratic Unionist party, and that we do not miss Her Majesty’s Opposition on this occasion.
I will glide over that point.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on securing this debate. I have rarely seen so many Members stay voluntarily until a late hour in order to contribute to an Adjournment debate. It is important that we have the opportunity to discuss the issue, especially because the proposal on which the Government are consulting does not require primary legislation and would not therefore trigger a debate on the Floor of the House. I greatly welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has raised it.
I will briefly set out the context of the broader proposal before moving on to the question of its application to national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. It will not be news to you, Mr Speaker, that I seem to spend quite a lot of my life fending off attacks from people who suggest that we should not build any new houses on green fields. I have listened to that concern—I sometimes hear it from hon. Friends, some of whom are present this evening—and have concluded that it is very important that we reassure people that we are making the absolute best possible use of every existing building in the country and that we are maximising the value we get out of developed land so that we do not need to build on undeveloped land more than is absolutely necessary.
I am the first to admit that we are not going to be able to satisfy our housing needs entirely from currently developed land, but it is important that everybody is reassured that we are trying to be inventive in thinking about ways to reuse buildings that no longer serve the purpose for which they were originally designed, and to do so in a way that meets their maximum economic and social value.
The Minister is being very courteous, as always, in giving way. Surely, in judging areas of such sensitivity as national parks, the body that has to be able to decide these matters is not central Government with a blanket rule but the national park authorities themselves, so why is there this blanket rule which will take away their discretion?
My hon. Friend anticipates the question of whether the proposed relaxation, or permitted development right, should apply to national parks. I was setting out the broad case for introducing a permitted development right in the country that would make it easier to convert agricultural buildings into homes. Having done so, it is now entirely legitimate to ask whether it would be appropriate to extend that right to national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty—or, in the planning jargon, section 15 land. We have undertaken a genuine consultation on the issue; it is not an issue on which the Government had a firm view and were just pretending to consult.
I congratulate the Minister, because he has been to High Peak and has sat with the chairman of the Peak District national park authority, Councillor Tony Favell, who has made the point that surely this should remain within the gift of the national park authorities. They are the local people: this is localism and it is about the local area. Surely it should remain with them, rather than there being a blanket rule and away you go.
I thank my hon. Friend for having invited me to his glorious constituency and arranging the meeting with the chairman of the Peak District national park authority. That is one of four meetings I have had in the past month with National Parks England, the Campaign for National Parks in High Peak, a group of Members of Parliament who represent national parks, and a senior representative of the South Downs national park. This has been a genuine process of engagement with national parks and those who represent them and of understanding the particular issues.
You know how much trouble I would get into, Mr Speaker, if I were to presume to anticipate the conclusion of a Government decision-making process and the securing of Cabinet clearance for such a decision. I can, nevertheless, point to the fact that in other areas where we have introduced an extended permitted development right, we have listened to the concerns raised and modified the original proposals, so I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes and all other hon. Members who have spoken. They include, not least, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), who must forgive me for being in some awe and fear of the deputy Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), and therefore being slightly distracted. We have listened to the very powerful and very persuasive arguments made, and we are genuinely taking them fully into account in reaching our final conclusion on how the permitted development right should work.
I know that the Minister never wants to be in trouble, but back in September, when he showed a bit of leg on this matter, he said that national parks
“are some of the most beautiful parts of the country”—
I represent a bit of the South Downs national park—
“and it is right that we accord them a different status from other beautiful landscapes and approach development issues slightly differently.”—[Official Report, 11 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 302WH.]
I suggest that he was hanging something out there for us back in September.
My hon. Friends—and good friends they all are—have accused me of flying kites, showing leg and hanging out there, which I venture to suggest is borderline unparliamentary language.
I want to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) that no such cynicism could ever possibly enter into these considerations. Sometimes a Minister genuinely asks an open question because they do not quite know the answer. I do not represent a national park—I represent some very beautiful countryside, but I am relatively persuaded that the permitted development right would be appropriate there—but my hon. Friends in the Chamber and many other hon. Members represent national parks, and they understand the difficult balancing act between their preservation and the encouragement of life and vigour. It is very right and proper that hon. Members and national park representatives should make the arguments that they have made.
I simply say that if the Government were to decide that the permitted development right should not apply to section 15 land, it would nevertheless be important to encourage national parks to be positive about proposals for conversions of agricultural buildings that no longer fulfil a purpose in modern agriculture, because of their scale and materials, to housing—and not just affordable housing, although that is desperately needed in national parks, but sometimes housing for owners of second homes. We are all aware of cases of national park authorities being reluctant ever to entertain the possibility that a modern—sympathetic, sensitive and well-designed—reconversion of an old building might benefit a national park or the beauty that makes it a national park.
Will my hon. Friend address the issue of agricultural buildings being taken but not used, particularly in relation to new entrants who find it so difficult to enter into agricultural business in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty or any hill area in North Yorkshire, because they do not have family there and there is nowhere for them to live or work?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. That is not directly within my ministerial brief, but it is a serious point. I simply venture to suggest that in relation to keeping old barns as old barns—if they are not currently used in modern agriculture—it would be relatively rare that a new farmer could start up a business from one of those buildings in a way that they could not do elsewhere. My hon. Friend’s concern is absolutely valid, and I would be very happy to talk to Ministers in the responsible Department about how to address that concern, and how to ensure that when we announce a final position, nothing we propose undermines such a possibility for new farmers.
My hon. Friend is being most generous in giving way. To clarify, is he saying that if permitted development rights were not applied to national parks, the Government would probably come forward with further proposals to change the way in which national parks operate, such that some of the derelict barns that he has described would be brought into more effective use?
I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful question. As he will know, the Government are considering the planning guidance. It has been out for consultation and many hon. Members have made useful contributions, which we will take seriously. We may look at whether we can give a slightly stronger nudge to national park authorities in that guidance about being positive in their view, while nevertheless retaining the right to decide whether something should receive planning permission.
One point that has not been covered is that some derelict buildings play an important role in sustaining wildlife in national parks. I hope that the Minister will also say whether, if permitted development rights are allowed for such areas, there could be a mechanism whereby exception sites are pulled in. Although I recognise that there will be some second homes, we must do something about affordable housing—that is the housing that is crucially needed in our national parks.
I am relieved to hear, Mr Speaker, that the cut-off is not after half an hour, but at 10.30 pm. I am therefore happy to take as many interventions as Members want to make.
To address my hon. Friend’s question briefly, she is absolutely right that the critical need, particularly in national parks, but also in many of the most beautiful and highest value areas of the country, is for affordable housing of various kinds. I have visited a couple of excellent community land trust projects, not in her constituency but in other parts of my home county of Devon, where I was born and grew up. It is important that we support great projects such as those and make it easier for them to persuade landowners to provide land for affordable housing development, perhaps in exchange for the right to undertake more profitable development. I am happy to look at anything more that we can do on that with the Housing Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins).
If my hon. Friend goes down the route of guidance, may I caution him against using the guidance to give national park authorities a nudge in the direction of saying that buildings should be converted, as he suggested? We should allow national park authorities to exercise their judgment on these matters and allow the Sandford principle to apply. That principle states quite clearly that, in the event of a conflict, conservation trumps economic development. These are often sensitive matters. In my constituency, a beautiful old barn is being considered for development. The national park authority is weighing that up carefully. A push in one direction would not be helpful and could be contrary to the principle on which the park was set up.
My right hon. Friend is always helpful in raising concerns about unintended consequences, but he is unnecessarily worried about that particular point. I did not say that the guidance should tell national park authorities that they should approve applications; I said that they should view applications in a positive manner. He knows how guidance works. It does not require anybody to do anything; it simply says, “You should take this into account as a material consideration in your decision making.” Nothing in guidance can undermine the much more important established legal duties that are unique to national parks. This is simply a question of balance.
Development might be appropriate for some national park authorities—there are differences between them. Some national park authorities are more open-minded and willing to try out different forms of development than others. All we are saying is that before they immediately say no because they think that the best way to preserve the beauty of their national park is for a particular building to stay exactly as it is, unused by modern agriculture, we would like them to think creatively about whether it could be used in a more positive way. I do not think that that in any way undermines the fundamental principles that national parks must prioritise above all other considerations according to their original, founding duties.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. It is incredibly important to ensure that homes in national parks also have broadband. In south Devon, one of the biggest small industries is the financial services industry, and we must ensure that it can help with growth. We must also ensure that we have a railway line so that we can get there.
I am an optimist and I think that such tensions can almost always be resolved positively, but my hon. Friend puts his finger on the potential tension between allowing modern life to take place so that these parks do not become theme parks, while preserving the very beauty that makes them so special in the first place, and makes people want to live and set up businesses there. That tension is real, but I am sure it can be resolved.
On flexibility, does the Minister agree that there may sometimes be a situation where conservation has to trump economic activity, and that that is restrictive? Something that has a minimal impact on conservation might have a positive impact on economic development, but at the moment national parks are hamstrung when it comes to making a measured judgment on that. It should be more flexible.
My hon. Friend had made this argument to me before in various settings—including a Westminster Hall debate that was almost equally lively—but I have not yet been persuaded by his argument. What is the point of a national park if conservation is not the prime duty? On the other hand, I do not think that that duty always trumps other arguments. Of course there are other responsibilities, and every national park authority that I have spoken to takes those other responsibilities seriously. It is reasonable, however, that in national parks a greater weight is placed on that fundamental duty to conserve the landscape than is true in the rest of the English countryside.
May I encourage the Minister to look at the example of Northern Ireland? Permitted development is not a carte blanche to go ahead and do whatever we want, and a sustainable rural community must survive as well. He mentioned balance about 10 times in his speech, and I suspect that the balance is Northern Ireland is one he would be glad to see.
I would be delighted to look closely at that, not least because this gives me the opportunity to tell the hon. Gentleman—whom I long to call an hon. Friend—that I lived in his constituency about 25 years ago on Sketrick island, which is one of the most beautiful settlements in the stunningly beautiful Strangford lough. As a Devon boy, I find myself deeply divided between the beauties of Dartmoor, which I grew up with, and the beauty of Strangford lough, which I enjoyed for but one summer—but what a summer it was. I would be happy to look at those examples.
I would like to build on an important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham). The Minister is expressing eloquently the need for balance in this discussion, and it is also important to achieve balance across the different needs and characters of different national parks. In some, buildings are often very isolated—in the peaks, for example—but not so isolated elsewhere. Building and constructing on isolated barns, or whatever else, would be entirely inappropriate in one national park, but might be more appropriate in others where there is less space and geographic expanse to fill.
My hon. Friend succinctly makes the argument for why it might well be appropriate for national parks to retain the ability to decide on a case-by-case basis whether such development is possible. I hope that I have explained that the intention behind the proposed permitted developed right is to bring forward more housing on land that is already developed, and to make maximum use of the buildings that our ancestors saw fit to build, so that we do not have to put up any more buildings on green fields than is necessary to meet our housing and other needs.
I recognise, however, and the Government recognise, that national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty are so called for a reason and have a special status. It is a status we must respect, and it is important that we think hard and listen to the arguments put to us about the appropriateness of this measure in those areas. Although I cannot anticipate the Government’s final position, I reassure you, Mr Speaker, my hon. Friends, and my honorary hon. Friend, that the Government have heard the arguments loud and clear.
Question put and agreed to.