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Local Plans

Volume 580: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Streeter.

I am delighted to have secured this debate today on a vital issue for my constituents. As I will discuss shortly, the proposed allocation of safeguarded land by the local authority in my area is causing profound concern among many of my constituents.

Despite the transformative impact that it has on the nation’s countryside, the term “safeguarded land” appears only three times in the national planning policy framework; all three references are in paragraph 85. This somewhat confusing phrase is first used when the boundaries of a green belt are defined. Local planning authorities should

“where necessary, identify in their plans areas of ‘safeguarded land’ between the urban area and the Green Belt, in order to meet longer-term development needs stretching well beyond the plan period”.

Crucially, the NPPF states that local authorities should safeguard land only “where necessary”. Therefore, it is clearly not a requirement that land should be safeguarded for development, despite some local authorities being convinced otherwise.

I myself could not make that point any better than the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), did in a previous Westminster Hall debate. He said that,

“there is nothing in the Localism Act 2011, in the NPPF or in any aspect of Government planning policy that requires someone to plan beyond 15 years. So, anybody who is suggesting that there is any requirement to safeguard land or wrap it up in wrapping paper and ribbons for the future development between 2030 and 2050 is getting it wrong. There is no reason for it and my hon. Friend can knock that suggestion straight back to wherever it came from.”—[Official Report, 24 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 193WH.]

I can entirely appreciate the rationale behind allowing local authorities the option—I stress the word “option”—to “safeguard land”. However, I am deeply concerned that this policy is being abused by certain local authorities in an effort to undermine the permanence of the green belt, which, as we all know, underpins this country’s entire planning system.

In order to illustrate that point, I will refer to a specific example of what is currently happening in my constituency. The City of York council is now just over a year into the process of formulating and adopting a local plan. When the council announced its initial proposals this time last year, I was contacted by hundreds of constituents who were horrified at the sheer scale of the development being proposed, and at the amount of green-belt land that would be lost for ever as a result. The initial draft of the local plan proposed 22,000 new homes during the 15-year life of the plan, including 16,000 new homes on approximately 1,400 acres of what is currently York’s established green belt. Not content with fundamentally altering the nature of York, which is a historic cathedral city, the council proposed to encircle the city with up to 40 wind farms and 80 pitches for Travellers and show people, all of which would be constructed on the green belt.

For good measure, the council then decided to safeguard a further 1,000 acres of green-belt land for future development. In the past few weeks, it has moved to the next stage of adopting its local plan and it has published a “Further Sites” document that contains proposals for new developments and revised boundaries. While the council’s revisions have resulted in recommendations to decrease some of the existing safeguarded allocations, the new safeguarded sites mean that the council is proposing a net increase of 162 acres of safeguarded land, which is land taken out of the green belt. That flies in the face of opposition from the rural communities surrounding York in my constituency which, quite frankly, are being ignored.

Some may wonder why that is of such concern to many of my constituents, given that safeguarded land is not intended for development in the immediate future. Indeed, paragraph 85 of the national planning policy framework states that local authorities should

“make clear that the safeguarded land is not allocated for development at the present time.”

My concern, however, is that once land has been removed from the green belt, it is effectively lost, gone for ever as development is practically guaranteed to occur on the site at some point in future. Although local authorities are encouraged to make it clear that safeguarded land is not currently available for development, I fear that, sadly, some weak-willed local authorities may sacrifice the long-term interests of local residents for short-term gain by permitting development ahead of schedule.

Again, there is an example in my constituency. I need only point to one of the council’s most recent proposals that is causing anxiety among constituents in the village of Earswick. In the new proposal for a 220-acre block of safeguarded land to the east of the village, which would see the village triple in size, the council recommends:

“To include this site as safeguarded land within the Local Plan. This reflects concerns over access and the creation of a sustainable neighbourhood.”

That seems innocent, but the local plan goes on to state:

“If these concerns can be overcome part of this land could potentially be considered as an allocation for years 1-15 of the Plan.”

The proposal has only just been announced, and already the council is trying to work out how it can develop the land ahead of schedule. It is inexplicable how, if there are already concerns on sustainability and access, the site can be proposed for long-term future development, let alone for construction within the 15-year plan period.

The crux of the problem is contained in paragraph 85 of the national planning policy framework:

“Planning permission for the permanent development of safeguarded land should only be granted following a Local Plan review which proposes the development”.

My understanding is that, once adopted, a local plan must be reviewed every five years. Such reviews provide local authorities with endless opportunities to revise existing site boundaries, propose safeguarded land for development and allocate further land for future expansion.

In short, promises to local residents can easily be broken. The five-year local plan review also effectively removes the local authority’s need to safeguard land in the first place. Why should local authorities plan for development beyond the 15-year life of the plan when there is no means of accurately identifying the community’s needs that far in the future? After all, local plans are supposed to be supported by a robust evidence base. I fail to see how cast-iron evidence detailing the housing and employment needs in 20 to 30 years’ time can be achieved. A far more appropriate course of action is to continue reassessing the housing requirements of our local communities throughout the plan’s life and address additional need as and when it arises. That pragmatic and common-sense alternative avoids the risk of unnecessarily concreting over thousands of acres of green-belt land.

I call on City of York council to remove the completely pointless allocations of safeguarded land from its draft local plan before it progresses any further. I strongly believe that my constituents should not be forced to live under the shadow of these needless development proposals on their doorstep. It is only right and proper that the council should reflect on the concern it has caused in so many communities on the outskirts of York.

If it is the case that safeguarded land is not a requirement for any local authority, the Government should be doing more to communicate that message to local authorities. There clearly remains some confusion about the nature of safeguarded land, what it is for and what its position within the local plan process should be. If we are to achieve a coherent and joined-up series of local plans across the country that promotes sustainable development while protecting green-belt land, there must be absolutely no confusion about what is required in the plans.

My hon. Friend is doing an excellent job of highlighting the concerns in his local area, where the Labour-run City of York council is using the neighbourhood plan possibly to build on green-belt land. Does he agree that it may be a good idea to name and shame councils nationally by publishing what they are doing with their plans and highlighting the councils that are putting green-belt land at risk?

I thank my hon. Friend for his timely intervention. He is right that this is of such public importance that there is no harm in putting such information into the public domain. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say. For anything such as this, having more information out there means that people can make informed decisions. That is part of the problem with safeguarded land, because people do not fully understand it. The confusion means that people are not participating in the consultation process of my local authority in York.

I, too, thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue of safeguarded land. In my area, Labour-run Kirklees council has provisional open land, and our local plan is probably two years from completion. I have communities in Upperthong, Meltham, Linthwaite, Netherthong and Lindley whose local wishes are being steamrollered by housing developments in areas that, to all intents and purposes, are green belt. I agree with the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore). Does my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) agree that councils need to provide more detail on where their local plans are and to use more accurate designations so that things such as safeguarded land and provisional open land are either green-belt or development land? Such land is currently between the two.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who I know is a sturdy campaigner in his constituency. As I said earlier, it is about having clear definitions so that the public at large are aware of what local authorities propose. Different local authorities propose different things in their local plans. My local authority in York proposes something that I think is fundamentally wrong for our great city. We need to ensure that there is clarity in the process so that everyone can make an informed choice and decision and take part in this important public consultation period as local authorities put together their local plans for the next 15 years.

The Minister may recall that in a debate I secured on York’s green belt this time last year, I called on the Government to reconsider the terminology used for safeguarded land due to the confusion it causes. When the council’s local plan was first announced, many of my constituents were wrongly under the impression that these massive blocks of land were safeguarded from development, rather than safeguarded for development. The problem clearly still exists in many parts of my constituency, where the reality of the proposals has yet to sink in fully. Although I will continue to do my best to ensure that no one is under any illusion as to what “safeguarded land” really is and what City of York council intends to do with it, I urge the Government to review the terminology to prevent such confusion limiting community involvement in challenging unsustainable development proposals.

If we truly want our local communities to have a greater say on planning and development policies as part of the Government’s wider commitment to localism, we must ensure that our constituents are equipped with the information they need to take on that role, rather than isolating them from the process by using unhelpful jargon. My understanding is that, before the introduction of the national planning policy framework, safeguarded land was known as reserved land, which is a much more appropriate name. I hope the Minister will reconsider the terminology.

Finally, I will reflect on the Opposition’s deeply flawed planning policy and what it might mean for our countryside if they were ever to put that policy into practice. My fear is that the Labour-run City of York council’s draft local plan and its emphasis on construction at the expense of any other considerations, such as the green belt and sustainability—perfectly illustrated by the vast amount of safeguarded land put aside in that plan—is a clear indication of what is to come nationally if Labour is elected to power in 2015. I was absolutely aghast to learn that York council has signed up our historic cathedral city to be one of Labour’s “right to grow” cities. We can be in little doubt that under a Labour Government the beautiful countryside surrounding York will be swallowed up by unrestricted development, and the legitimate concerns and protests of the surrounding communities will, I fear, be cast aside. I have no qualms in saying that localism, which has been one of the Government’s defining principles and has provided the inspiration behind an incredibly successful programme of reforms, is under great threat.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these important issues on safeguarded land in local plans on behalf of my constituents. I reiterate my calls for the withdrawal of safeguarded allocations from York’s draft plan and for a more pragmatic approach to long-term development in York. I also call on the Government to do all they can to ensure that all local authorities are fully aware that safeguarded land is not a requirement under the NPPF. At the same time, I would be pleased to hear the Minister comment on whether the Government will reconsider the terminology used for safeguarded land. That terminology is so important, and it is misleading.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I fear that we might be interrupted by the Division bell, so I will try to address the points raised so quickly that we might sneak in under the wire, although I am not entirely confident that I can achieve that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this debate on a matter of intense importance to his constituents. He has raised the matter with me in debates such as this, in the Division Lobby, in the cafeterias, in the Tea Room and on every opportunity he has had. I have absolutely no doubt of the importance of the matter to his constituents or of his desire to represent them fully in the process of producing an acceptable local plan for York. If I may—I hope he will understand—I will not make any reference to the York plan or the particular issues relating to York, because it would be improper for me to do so. I hope that by talking about the general policy issues, it might be possible for him to take some comfort and some information for the benefit of his communities.

The green belt and the protection of green-belt land are of enormous importance to the Government. That is why the national planning policy framework has repeated in very clear terms the very high levels of protection that apply to green-belt land. I can state clearly that there has never been a time when the protections of green-belt land have been clearer or more explicit in national policy than now.

I want to ask the Minister about the best and most versatile agricultural land being specifically singled out for extra protection. We have a big issue in Bristol with the plans to tarmac over grade 1 agricultural land. Is it not important that we protect the best soil for growing food, rather than use it for other purposes? It simply cannot be replaced elsewhere.

The hon. Lady has singled out another category of land where the preservation of current use is given great priority—the highest quality agricultural land. The national planning policy framework is clear that, to the extent that greenfield land has to be allocated for development—unfortunately, some does—less high quality agricultural land should be preferred and that grade 1 agricultural land, which is the highest quality, should be preserved for agriculture where at all possible.

To return to green-belt protections, the national planning policy framework is clear on the importance of those protections, the permanence of green-belt land and its role in preserving the openness of the countryside and in preventing settlements from merging.

I want to reiterate what the Minister is saying about the green belt for my constituency of Kingswood. Before the 2010 general election, there were several applications to build on green-belt land. Since 2010, there has not been a single application to build on the green belt in Kingswood. It is clear that the NPPF is working well. I would, however, like the Minister’s comments on the possibility of a future Government’s “right to grow” policy, which would be disastrous for our local area. It would be the greatest threat to the green belt in 30 years if Bristol was allowed to ride roughshod over the wishes of south Gloucestershire residents.

This Government’s policy is clear: we want to achieve locally arrived at, co-operative solutions to difficult problems, rather than having top-down Government imposition of solutions or one authority being able to ride roughshod over another. Everyone in our communities has a right to a voice, but that does not mean that any of us can entirely abdicate responsibility for difficult decisions, such as fulfilling the housing needs of future generations. We all deserve to have our voices heard and we all deserve to be part of that solution. We are keen to ensure that, so far as possible, the future development needs of our country are met without threatening the protection of the green belt, of grade 1 agricultural land and of our most beautiful countryside with other designations.

That said, it has always been the case—there is no change in this—that local authorities can revise their green-belt boundaries through a local plan process involving intense consultation with local people. There are a number of communities around the country that are doing just that. It is painful and difficult, and it is right that it happens through an intensely transparent, open and democratic process that takes into account all the opinions expressed by all the different communities affected.

When it does that exercise, the local authority has to pass a very high test: it has to be able to demonstrate that exceptional circumstances justify taking a particular site out of the green belt or redrawing a green-belt boundary, perhaps to swap land currently in the green belt for land that is not, but is of greater environmental importance. Those are the kinds of arguments that local authorities need to bring forward and the kinds of evidence they need to provide to satisfy a planning inspector that any such proposal is reasonable. I do not criticise any council that is going down that road, because it is right that it, as the duly elected local authority, should be able to. The local authority must, however, go openly and transparently into that process with evidence and after a great deal of consultation.

I turn to the particular issue of safeguarded land. I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer that it is an often misunderstood concept. I have to confess that for several months at the beginning of my time in this post, I, too, was somewhat confused about whether it was “safeguarded for” or “safeguarded from”. He makes a good point about the terminology being—it is not deliberate—rather baffling to people. “Safeguarded” seems to suggest protection, rather than an allocation for future development needs.

I commit to my hon. Friend that we will go away and look at the simple question of the terminology and whether there could be better wording. When the national planning policy framework is reviewed, whether we can better clarify that wording will be on the agenda. The concept of safeguarded land as land that is reserved, as he put it, for the possibility of future development needs beyond the life of the plan being laid out has a good justification in some cases. It has a good justification for the following reason: if future development needs are likely to require further difficult choices about some sites in the green belt, it is better to be clear that certain sites might some day have to have their status reviewed, than to have the entire green belt under some abstract possible future threat.

The reason behind the safeguarding terminology is the idea that by clarifying where the future might lead it is made clear that there are some permanently protected places. In some sense, therefore, more reassurance is gained than uncertainty created about what is being protected for ever.

My hon. Friend is completely right, however, that safeguarding is not a requirement for every local authority with green-belt land. It is something that it can choose to do, but only if necessary. If the plan that it puts forward has provisions to meet housing needs in full and if other sites are available for potential future development beyond the life of the plan, it may well be that safeguarding land is unnecessary. He has asked me before, and I have been happy to confirm, that while we want all communities to embrace growth, a vaulting ambition is not a sufficient justification for threatening protected land. Need is an important factor and can be a contributor to the exceptional circumstances that might justify some potential revision of a site’s protected status. Ambition and the desire to grow faster than one’s neighbours or perhaps to build a small empire is not a sufficient justification for putting protections at risk. As my hon. Friend pointed out, it is only if it is necessary that an authority should consider the possibility of designating some safeguarded land.

Given that local authorities must act carefully and with evidence; that safeguarding is not mandatory and authorities should use it only if necessary; that we are happy to examine the terminology to clarify that such land is not safeguarded for ever and is reserved because of an evidence base for potential future need; and that the rest of the green belt is not subject to such possibilities, I hope that my hon. Friend will have something to take back to his constituents.