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Planning (Walsall South)

Volume 578: debated on Monday 31 March 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Claire Perry.)

I do not know what to say other than “How do I follow that?” However, the theme of my speech is very similar to that of the petition presented by the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg).

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting me an Adjournment debate on what is becoming a very controversial issue in Walsall South. What I am about to describe are not only threats to the green belt, but threats to those of us who oppose a planning application in support of it. I refer in particular to an application for 59 large detached houses in Great Barr park.

I am sad to say that one of the developers has already made a complaint about me to the Labour party. I think that is because he believes that I am supporting the residents too much, although I am not quite sure what his grounds are. Moreover, a leaflet has been delivered which makes defamatory statements about me, about my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson)—who is in the Chamber—and about a residents’ group, the Beacon Action Group, and its chairman Mr Bob Winkle. A personal attack on me has been made by Mr Peter Allen, a consultant for the applicants, who does not live in Walsall South, on the letters page of the Great Barr Observer and the Walsall Advertiser. Both Mr Allen and the applicants appear to want to interfere in my work as a Member of Parliament, but more of that later.

The planning committee of Walsall metropolitan borough council has made two other decisions allowing building on the green belt. It decided that the historic Three Crowns pub should be converted into a single dwelling, and that three additional houses should be constructed, despite the advice of planning officers that that would reduce the openness of the green belt. That was decided in September 2011, but nothing has been built, and the site still lies derelict save for a car wash for which there was no permission. The footprint of the Three Crowns school could have been used as a community building, but there are now to be eight detached houses on the site. According to some of my correspondence with constituents, the planning committee was not given the full history of the site before it made its decision—a decision that the planning casework unit upheld.

However, the development that is causing the biggest controversy and the most personal attacks on people who oppose it is the one on which I want to focus: the development of Great Barr park and hall. My main concern, which I hope the Minister will address, is the use of enabling development to bypass planning law and the national planning policy framework on the green belt. As the Campaign to Protect Rural England suggested in a report published last week, the green belt is not safe. While I welcome the Minister’s written statement of 6 March 2014, local people who are directly affected, and the current framework, are being ignored in the whole process.

Since 2012, when the current owners bought the land, residents of Great Barr park have been unaware of behind-the-scenes discussions with English Heritage and the council, and with the self-styled historical consultant Peter Allen. The site was the subject of an inquiry in 2001, and at a public meeting Mr Allen said:

“Forget any romantic notion of bringing Great Barr Hall back to the way it was in Lady Scott’s time. There is no roof; the stucco and underlying brickwork are badly decayed… all doors and fireplaces have been stolen; floorboards, ceilings and staircases have disappeared”.

Great Barr hall, he said, was

“a derelict shell—that is the…reality.”

That is what he said in 2001, and that is exactly the situation now, with English Heritage saying that there is absolutely nothing of historic value in the building. So why are the developers being able to use this building as enabling development to bypass the planning framework on the green belt? The application fails all the tests set out in paragraphs 80, 88 and 89 of the NPPF, and the developer’s own statement says it will have an impact on the openness of the green belt.

If allowed, this development will extend Walsall, Birmingham and Sandwell into the countryside and the gap between them will be eroded. It will not safeguard the countryside from encroachment, nor does it assist with urban regeneration by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land—all set out in the NPPF.

Then there is the use of agricultural land near Chapel lane. An inspector said at the inquiry that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—

“considers the farmland within the site to be high quality and would object to development.”

What safeguards are there to ensure that the local planning authority is not there to support the developers, particularly when it is clear, and there is a prima facie case, that the development does not meet the NPPF guidance? The planning authority should have refused it if it was applying the NPPF. Instead, it is engaged in an exercise, and a letter on the council website stated

“we would very much like to continue to work with you towards delivering an acceptable proposal.”

Peter Allen’s website states:

“After prolonged and close scrutiny it is now endorsed by, amongst others, Walsall MBC, English Heritage…and the Environment Agency”—

and that was before the residents were even aware of the application. There is now a disclaimer on the website, however.

My constituents were provided with the notice of planning application on 23 December 2013 and given 21 days to respond. How cynical is that! Incensed by this and bewildered, some constituents contacted me. Some who would have been affected did not even receive the notice. The vicar of St Margaret’s church, Rev. Rutter, who knows about the Scott family whose history is based around the church and who built the hall, has not even been consulted on or informed of the notice of planning application. He could have told English Heritage that a reference to a chapel was never located in the hall and has always been in the church.

The Beacon Action Group, which has been around for the last 31 years, set up a public meeting to discuss the plans. On 1 February, two MPs—my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East and I—heard the views of the residents. All those who spoke to me were opposed. We were not there to give our view, but to hear the views of the residents. The plans were up and people could see them for themselves, and they were horrified.

The hall was to become a wedding and conference centre, but there is one already and it is called St Margaret’s church—and conferences have taken place at the nearby Holiday Inn. Agricultural land would be swallowed up by houses: 59 in total across the site, and they would not be affordable homes. Residents who have had access to the park for over 20 years would be restricted to twice a year, and even now some are being escorted out of the park.

There is an ancient woodland called Gilbert’s wood which has a bluebell wood, which Rev. Rutter, who is a botanist, says has taken 200 years to establish, with native English bluebells. An access road will go right through it, but it seems that in the planning statement it was all systems go except for the local residents. English Heritage could have either saved the building or provided a grant, but did neither. It has known about the hall since 2001. Successive owners have promised to repair the hall but this has never happened, and even in the current application the intention is not to do anything to repair the hall until 10 years on.

Why did English Heritage refuse to meet residents who know more about the history, like Rev. Rutter and the Beacon Action Group? I had to deal with the extraordinary situation of an English Heritage officer refusing to meet me unless Walsall council was present—refusing to meet an MP on the site, refusing to listen to residents, and propping up a building which by its own admission has no historic value at all, and allowing its name to be used to endorse the application.

As for the council, it either knows the guidance or it does not. It has outlined no special circumstances, so why is it leading the applicants on? It seems to want to silence the residents, too. The residents have put up posters, some along a grass verge. The council sent a truck along to remove the posters, even though the grass verge was not on Walsall land but on Sandwell land. It is trying to silence the residents. The applicants’ schedule of works states that the hall will not be restored for another 10 years. Moreover, this is not about housing. The council said in 2011, in response to the draft NPPF, that

“there is plenty of capacity for house building not just for the next 5 years but until 2026”.

The green belt is not secure. According to the Minister’s own figures in a written answer to me, of the 419 applications for development that have been referred to the casework unit, 10 have been called in and all the others were allowed. Of the 10, seven are under consideration, one was withdrawn and two were approved. With those odds, my constituents and those of other Members do not stand a chance of protecting the green belt. They do not stand a chance in the face of bullying, threats and intimidation by those who have financial means and who do not want to apply the guidance.

Will the Minister tell me why local authorities are engaging with developers when the guidance is clear? Why are they engaging with developers and not listening to residents’ concerns? Why did the council not consult all stakeholders, including the Merrions Wood trust and the residents of Merrions close, of Birmingham road, for which there are traffic implications, and of Skip lane and other roads? The council is rushing out notices each time it is told that people have not been consulted. Who is it working for? Why is it allowing supporters of the development to say that the authority making the decision has endorsed the proposal as though the decision has already been made?

I ask the Minister to issue further guidance immediately to all local authorities about the green belt, to make them aware of his written statement and to confirm that brownfield sites should be used first in all circumstances. The green belt is under further threat from the general permitted development order coming into force on 6 April, which will allow agricultural buildings to be turned into residential use. Sadly, the statistics and the evidence do not hold up. Will the Minister please reassure me that the green belt is safe?

Back in Walsall South, walking down Chapel lane towards St Margaret’s church, there is a beautiful silence. We know we are in the countryside there, and the church provides a setting for contemplation and serenity. That will all be lost as a result of a few people making life intolerable for the many, and for the generations to come.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and the Minister for allowing me to make this brief contribution to the debate.

Mr Speaker, this discussion takes me back to a contribution that you made as a Back Bencher some years ago. There was a debate on how low-flying military helicopters were affecting horse riders, and you sagely warned the Minister that you were not going to go away. My hon. Friend’s contribution tonight has made it very clear to those developers that she is not going to go away either, and I will be standing right behind her. I am deeply impressed with the commitment she has shown to her constituents and mine in raising this important matter, which I hope the Minister will take seriously.

Hundreds of residents in West Bromwich East and Walsall South are opposing this application through the Beacon Action Group, led by the doughty campaigner Bob Winkle. The proposed development is contrary to all Government guidelines on the use of the green belt, including the national planning policy framework, and to local plans in the metropolitan boroughs of Sandwell and Walsall. Walsall council has already identified its housing needs for about the next decade and does not require the use of this prime green belt land. Sandwell council says that if the application as it stands is passed, it could set a dangerous precedent for development on green belt land, not just locally but nationally.

What is particularly concerning about this application is the manner in which the developers have failed to consult the community adequately. Indeed, in my view, they have misled them. They told local residents that English Heritage was in favour of the proposals, but that is not the case. They told Great Barr residents that local historian Peter Allen was in favour of the proposals to modify the dilapidated Great Barr hall, yet they did so without telling them that he had been enlisted as a consultant on the project. They also told local residents that it would lead to the restoration of Great Barr hall, but only in 10 years’ time, and in my view they have not adequately explained how they will pay for it. I just say to the Minister that this application has been a textbook example of how developers can alienate a community and propose to destroy the green belt in the name of profit. Local people believe the proposed application should never see the light of day.

It is a pleasure to reply to the debate secured by the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), and I congratulate her on securing a debate on an issue of such great concern to her and her constituents. I am sure she was delighted when the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) said that he was standing right behind her—I am not sure everyone is so delighted when he says such a thing, but I know that in this case it is well intentioned, and certainly for her protection and nothing else. The hon. Lady will understand that I cannot talk about any particular application, but I hope I can reassure her about the protection for the green belt in national policy, the further clarification of the protections we have issued in national planning guidance and routes open to her and the hon. Gentleman should they feel that this or any other application merits further inspection and decision making by Ministers.

First, let me deal with the policy on the green belt. The protections for the green belt in the national planning policy framework are simply as strong or stronger than any protection in any policy that preceded it. Nothing about the policy in the framework has in any way diluted the protection of the green belt relative to the previous position. The NPPF makes it clear that changes to green belt boundaries should be made only in exceptional circumstances, and through a local plan process involving a great deal of consultation with local people and robust examination by a planning inspector. As that policy position is so strong, the latest data show that between 2012 and 2013 just 0.02% of the total green belt changed status—became developed having been previously undeveloped. That is a tiny proportion of the 13% of land in England that has designation as green belt. So I can reassure the hon. Lady that the protections for the green belt remain very strong. I also have to say, as she raised this, that some of the claims made in the recent report by the Campaign to Protect Rural England were simply false and based on a spurious reading of very partial evidence.

The hon. Lady is also right to point out that there is a second test in national policy: when is inappropriate development in the green belt nevertheless acceptable? The policy makes it clear that inappropriate development can be permitted only in very special circumstances, and she referred to her belief that in this case those circumstances have not been demonstrated. We have made it clear in a written ministerial statement, which we then reiterated in the planning guidance to which she referred, that it is very unlikely that unmet housing need, of itself, will be sufficient to provide the very special circumstances to justify inappropriate development in the green belt. That is why in recent times we have called in for ministerial decision a number of planning applications proposing such development in the green belt, because we were keen to ensure that this very important area of national policy was being abided by and adhered to in decisions about green belt development.

That leads me on to the route that is open to the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman. When an application comes before a local authority, we as a Government prefer that decisions on it are taken locally, by the local authority. However, there are some applications that raise particular issues that have a greater relevance than simply their local impact. It is possible, in rare cases, to ask for an application to be called in for ministerial decision. The way that that works is that the planning authority will go through its process of determining the application, but before it can issue the decision—before the decision itself has statutory force—the Department and the Secretary of State will have an opportunity to look at the particular application and consider whether to call it in for ministerial decision. If the Secretary of State concludes that it is an appropriate application to call in for ministerial decision, there will then be an inquiry by a planning inspector, who will make a recommendation on that planning application to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State or one of the other Ministers in the Department will then make the decision on that planning application.

I cannot prejudge whether the hon. Lady will want to avail herself of that course of action—of writing to the Secretary of State to request any application to be called in—nor can I prejudge what the decision might be likely to be in any particular case if she were to do so. All I can say is that many other Members, on both sides of the House, have taken this route on very particular applications that raise issues that are of more than local significance and that are right at the heart of national policy. While it is rare, there have been several cases relating to inappropriate development in the green belt where the Secretary of State has concluded that it is appropriate to call it in for ministerial decision rather than to allow the local authority to determine it.

I hope that that gives the hon. Lady a perspective and an avenue that she might usefully be able to explore.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.