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Housing Targets (Pudsey)

Volume 592: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am grateful to have secured this debate, which is very important for my constituents. All hon. Members think their constituency is unique and special, as I certainly do. The Pudsey constituency is made up of many individual towns and villages that have a history dating back centuries. All have their own unique identity and are blessed with being close to one of the busiest and most successful cities in the north—Leeds—and being a stone’s throw from the beautiful Yorkshire dales countryside. What makes living in Pudsey, Horsforth and Aireborough enjoyable is the countryside that acts as the natural green lungs between the communities, helping to preserve their real sense of identity.

Every part of the constituency, however, has seen significant change over the past 15 years. Where once stood mills and factories, we now have thousands of new houses. As a consequence, the issue of planning has always been high in the minds of local people. All those extra houses have brought real problems: roads such as the A65 and the ring road have become notoriously congested; schools have such high demand that it is difficult for some parents to get their children into their local school; and doctors’ surgeries have got busier and busier.

My hon. Friend has been a persistent campaigner on this subject for his constituents, for which I commend him. With regard to the A65 and the schools in his constituency, does he agree that the proposed developments in Menston right on the edge of his constituency, which will be a disaster for that village, will also have a massive negative effect on the A65 that his constituents use and on local schools? Children living in those developments would go to Guiseley school.

My hon. Friend is right. I am trying to get across that these issues affect not only my constituency; planning applications in his constituency will also have a severe impact.

Just as we thought that things could not get any worse, we are now facing a new onslaught. Like many councils across the country, Leeds city council is currently developing its local plan. The core strategy sets out the council’s housing target. To my amazement and that of my constituents, the council has set the target at a staggering 70,000 houses during the next 16 years. In doing so, the Labour-run council has all but adopted the housing figures from the now-defunct regional spatial strategy, which is an unacceptable prospect for me and my constituents. As a base for that target, the council has used Office for National Statistics population growth projections from 2008. Those data are clearly out of date and inaccurate. More recent data, such as the census, show that growth has been some 43% less than predicted, which presents the first anomaly in the target.

Additionally, the council has based housing numbers on a large explosion of jobs in Leeds, which is good news. However, the council predicts that all the people who fill those jobs will need housing in Leeds, which, in an age of commuting, is clearly nonsense. Currently, only 66% of people who work in Leeds actually live there. Why else would Leeds railway station be one of the nation’s busiest? And why else would trains arriving at stations just within the city’s border, such as Guiseley, Horsforth and New Pudsey, be so crammed if so many people working in Leeds were not from neighbouring areas?

I attended the core strategy examination with Conservative councillors and community groups to argue that the target was too high and was based on outdated and flawed data. Sadly, our case fell on deaf ears and the target was approved. Since then, I have been warning that such a high target will pose a real threat to our green belt, which we will see, now that the council is seeking to identify the sites it needs for housing, but even I could not have foreseen how bad the threat would be.

On 4 January, the council announced a range of sites across the city that it is to consider for development, and there are sites in every part of my constituency. Shockingly, the majority of sites are in the green belt: fields on Ings lane that separate Guiseley and Menston; fields along Coach road that buffer the border with Bradford; and land in Rawdon along the Southlands estate that abuts important woodland. There are also the fields along the A65 from Rawdon crematorium down to the notorious roundabout at Horsforth, and land off Owlcotes road, Gain lane, and Rodley lane.

I recognise the need for house building, and across the city of Leeds there are masses of brownfield sites that need regenerating, particularly in the centre. An ambitious plan was proposed by Leeds sustainable development group for the south side of the city to transform old, derelict sites into good housing, schools and a park—in effect, creating a garden city. That is exactly the sort of development we should surely be encouraging, particularly given the excellent transport links, but again that proposal seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

Does my hon. Friend agree that in Leeds, against the backdrop of facts and figures, the Labour-run council has shown scant regard in destroying our constituencies? My constituency of 41,000 houses is now expected to take 12,500 extra houses, and he rightly points out that there are huge swathes of brownfield land that should be used ahead of the green fields and green belt. Is he struck that this is just political menacing at the expense of people’s lives?

I certainly agree. When it was set up, the whole point of the green belt was not just to preserve our natural environment; it was also to encourage regeneration. I am worried that sites in the city centre are being neglected. Worse, at the examination hearing we challenged the developers to be more ambitious and to adopt such an approach with city centre plans, but their response was simply, “It is not viable.” Is that an acceptable excuse? Are we instead to destroy our green belt and to let such brownfield sites fester, just because the developers say so?

The usual accusation of nimbyism will be bandied about, but that is most unfair. As I said at the start, we have seen every bit of every brownfield site in my constituency used: the High Royds hospital site; the Silver Cross site; the Springhead mills site; the gasworks in Yeadon; the Brook Crompton site; the electricity site; the Cornmill estate in Horsforth; the Broom Mills site in Farsley; the Newlands estate at Farsley Celtic; and the Waterloo road and Cemetery road developments in Pudsey. Those are just a few of the developments, and more are being built or planned. Some 550 houses have been proposed for the Riverside and Clariant sites in Horsforth. Our community has had to cope with the effects of the building of thousands of homes, so this is not nimbyism; it is about wanting sustainable development. Because of the use of all those brownfield sites, in many areas all we have left is the green belt, and building on that is simply not on.

Of course house builders want these sites—they are easier to build on and they are often in areas where the house builders will make the most profit—but the green belt in this area is special. We are not talking about scrappy bits of land; the green belt forms part of what is special and unique in our area—the rural fringe of a city that sits on the borderlands between the south Pennines and the dales, as we saw so effectively during the Tour de France. Green belt sites are important green lungs between our communities that help to keep the identity of those communities. They are used by walkers, horse riders, mountain bikers and farmers, and of course they are important for wildlife and heritage: bats, barn owls, deer, woodpeckers and historical medieval crofts and tofts

I have real fears, and members of the community are rightly angry. They have accepted brownfield development, and they now fear losing the green belt. In Aireborough alone there will be a further 1,600 houses, 79% of which will be on the green belt. A common complaint that I hear from residents is that they feel that planning is something that happens to them, but they have decided to take advantage of the new opportunities that have arisen. Organisations such as Aireborough neighbourhood forum, Rawdon parish council and Horsforth town council are working incredibly hard to develop considered plans that make the most of what we have, encouraging enterprise and building on the history of entrepreneurship that is the legacy of our area’s past. However, Leeds city council is throwing that away as it steams ahead with its ridiculous housing target, which is among the highest in the country and poses a threat to the unique nature of our area.

A complaint from many local bodies is that they are not being listened to. They feel that whatever they say is ignored, which causes more frustration, as the targets are also dictating the development of proposed conservation areas. In Nether Yeadon, the area proposed has been reduced from what independent specialists such as English Heritage suggested, because the site allocation is dictating the designated area. Surely it should be the other way around.

I pay tribute to all the residents who have engaged in the process: John Davies and Jackie Schmelt in Rawdon; Nigel Gill and the residents in Yeadon; Jennifer Kirkby, who has been working with the Aireborough neighbourhood forum; Clive Woods and David Ingham of the Civic Society; the Horsforth campaigners; the Farsley residents action group, which is fighting to protect Kirklees Knoll; Briony Spandler and Martin Fincham, who are working hard in Rawdon.

I have some questions for my hon. Friend the Minister. I have heard time and again that building on green- belt land should be allowed only in exceptional circumstances. My constituents want to know what constitutes exceptional circumstances. Is meeting a housing target an exceptional circumstance? If not, where is that clearly stated, so that we can present our arguments? How can neighbourhood plans be developed when the council plan is at odds with local views? How does that fit in with localism? How can he reassure my constituents, who have put in hours of work, that they are not wasting their time?

The green belt methodology has five criteria: checking unrestricted sprawl, preventing the merging of towns, safeguarding the countryside and preventing encroachment, preserving character and assisting in regeneration by recycling derelict land.

The picture that my hon. Friend paints of his area is repeated across west Yorkshire. As he knows, we too have a Labour-run council in Kirklees that is going against local wishes and not listening to local people. Localism is not working in our areas.

I agree with my hon. Friend on the brownfield-first policy. I know how much time he spends knocking on doors in his constituency and meeting local people. I find that there are many empty properties that could be redeveloped and brought back into use as family homes in the middle of communities. We need to work on that side of things and use existing properties for local people.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The last time I looked at the figures on the number of empty homes in Leeds city alone, it added up to around 14,000. If we add the 20,000 or so planning permissions that have been granted, that is more than 30,000 opportunities to create properties for people, so let us get that system right before we start demolishing our green belt.

I have outlined the five criteria in the green belt methodology, but in the Leeds city council site allocation, item 5—the crucial bit about assisting in regeneration by recycling land—seems to have been removed. The reason cited is that it is in the core strategy. Is that right and proper? It seems very convenient.

We have also heard lots from the Government about the need for infrastructure. Improvements are being made to notorious roundabouts in the constituency, and new railway stations are being built, but those are solutions to problems we are facing now as a result of building over the past 15 years. Any further development will make those problems return. What does the Minister consider to be adequate infrastructure, and should that not be in place before we start building new houses?

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend’s flow, but does he agree that we are in a ludicrous situation? His local authority and mine are next door to each other, wanting to build more and more houses in our constituency. At the same time, the west Yorkshire combined authority is putting all the infrastructure spending into the Labour heartlands, starving our areas of the infrastructure that they need to support the housing that it wants to impose on us.

I could not agree more. Anybody who travels along roads in my constituency or my hon. Friend’s will know how horribly congested they are. The A65 is probably one of the most notorious in the country. That is a result of all the housing built before. If the plan goes ahead and all that green belt is lost, the situation will get much worse.

Should not the guidance on how to determine housing need in an area be more detailed in order to stop rogue targets? Should it not be clear so that we do not have different sorts of target all over the country? They should be based not on aspirational demand but on realistic need.

I could talk for a lot longer; I emphasise that I have merely scratched the surface. I have not touched on the fact that we face a double whammy from the Bradford city council targets that will be announced. However, I want to relay to Members the anger and frustration over the fear that such areas are in danger of losing their identity. We need sustainable and realistic housing targets and regeneration decided by planning, not developers. If we had those things, we would be able to preserve the green and beautiful countryside of which Leeds used to be so proud in calling itself the green city. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to help me and my constituents to stop the destruction and prevent, as Briony Spandler put it so well, our green belt from being turned into grey belt.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) on securing this debate and outlining some key issues for his constituency. I know that he has fought hard on them; he has lobbied me heavily and invited me to his constituency. I was pleased to meet some of the residents whom he mentioned.

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concerns about the high housing requirement in the Leeds core strategy. I know that the issue is of considerable importance to him and the local communities that he represents, and it is a subject that we have met to discuss. I am acutely conscious of the impact that planning decisions have on local communities and our wider overall environment, as well as on the investment and growth that our economy needs. That is especially true of housing. It is important not only that we deliver the houses that this country so desperately needs but that they are designed to a high quality and, as hon. Friends have outlined, put in the right places.

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, given Ministers’ quasi-judicial role in the planning system, I cannot comment on specific proposals or plans. None the less, he has raised some important issues relating to the Government’s approach and reforms, and to what is going on locally in Leeds. An up-to-date local plan, prepared through extensive public consultation, sets the framework in which decisions are taken, whether locally by the planning authority or at appeal.

I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns about the level of development planned for in Leeds city council’s local plan. Plan making is always challenging, as it involves difficult decisions about how an area is likely to, should and can develop in the future. Local authorities rightly have the power to make such decisions. My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) said—if I remember his words correctly—that his local Labour council is just not listening. Fortunately for our democratic system, residents can do something about that when the time comes. Local plans do far more than set housing numbers; they establish areas that it is necessary to protect and set out how development will be supported by appropriate infrastructure.

One problem faced by my constituency is that the Labour-run council has decided to play games. Rather than putting the 5,000 houses required in just one area, where they can be built with proper infrastructure, it is giving us death by a thousand cuts by building only 200 or 300 houses in each village. Each village will eventually join up, but absolutely no infrastructure will have been added. I urge the Minister to look closely at that. If councils are allowed to get away with that, our communities and infrastructure will be absolutely destroyed.

I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, and that is one of the reasons why I am keen to move forward and get areas to do more work and develop more neighbourhood plans. Those plans have been admirably championed by my hon. Friends, because they enable local communities to make decisions about infrastructure. Infrastructure is potentially an environmental constraint, and local authorities should look at it to ensure that their housing delivery is appropriate when considering the local plan and planning applications. I will return to that point in a moment.

The national planning policy framework is clear that the purpose of planning is to deliver sustainable development, not development at any cost or anywhere. The framework was introduced after the abolition of the unpopular, top-down regional strategies. It sets out a clear approach to enable local planning authorities to determine the overall housing requirement for their area. Although I appreciate that the housing need in Leeds is still high, Leeds city council’s plans aim to deliver 3,660 homes by 2017, in comparison to the regional strategy’s target of 4,300.

I fully appreciate the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey about the housing data on which the Leeds core strategy is based. As he rightly said, the first step is for local planning authorities to prepare a strategic housing market assessment to assess their full housing needs, and to work with neighbouring authorities where housing market areas cross administrative boundaries. That assessment should be based on facts and unbiased evidence, and it should be unfettered by policy. It should also identify the scale and mix of housing and the range of tenures that the local population is likely to need over the plan period.

I fully acknowledge the concern that Leeds city council based its assessment on the 2008 household projection figures, rather than the lower 2012 projections, which were based on the 2011 census findings. Furthermore, on examination, the inspector recognised that concern and others expressed about the council’s approach, so they inserted a requirement for the local authority to monitor evidence regarding housing need. They agreed to a lower housing requirement for the first years of the plan—the number will be stepped up in later years—to enable people to keep an eye on the plan. My Department will publish updated household projection figures shortly, which may influence future housing need.

That is true, but the figure is going up to 4,500 new houses a year in years 3, 4 and 5. There is real concern that at that point, developers may have put in planning applications that will release those sites, and it will be too late. Does the Minister agree that we need an early review of the housing targets in Leeds?

It is difficult for me to comment on a particular local plan. More generally, if there is clear evidence that things are changing in an area, it would be appropriate and sensible for the local authority to conduct an early review. That is as far as I can go.

As my hon. Friend said, identifying housing need is only the first step of the process. Once the need has been assessed, the local planning authority must prepare a strategic housing land availability assessment to establish realistic assumptions about the availability, suitability and likely economic viability of the land to meet the identified housing need over the plan period. It is expected to take into account the policies of the framework, including the environmental constraints.

National policy is clear that planning must take into account the different roles and characters of areas, and recognise the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside. Policy also states that to promote sustainable development in rural areas, houses should be located where they will enhance or maintain the vitality of rural communities. As my hon. Friend and others have said, and as I know from my visit to his constituency, much of the countryside is rightly loved and cherished by local communities.

The green belt is a legitimate constraint on development. It is listed as an environmental constraint within the national planning policy framework. That answers my hon. Friend’s question about whether a housing target is a special circumstance for developing on the green belt. The Government attach the highest importance to protecting our green belt. The new guidance that we published in October re-emphasises that importance. We are clear that green belt boundaries should be established in local plans and should be altered only in exceptional circumstances, using the local plan process of proper consultation and independent examination. If Leeds city council undertakes a green belt review, it will need to present robust evidence to the planning inspector and not come unstuck at examination for not doing the proper background work, as did Ashfield district council and Solihull metropolitan borough council.

Our protection of the green belt also extends to planning decisions. Most types of new buildings are inappropriate for green belt land and are, by definition, harmful to it. Such developments should not be approved except in special circumstances. Each planning case has unique facts and a unique context, and it must be determined on its own merits, so we cannot create a list of special circumstances. However, our planning guidance makes it clear that unmet housing need, including need for Traveller sites, is unlikely to outweigh harm to the green belt.

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friends that timely and robust infrastructure provision is vital to delivering sustainable development. Local authorities must focus on that issue. Furthermore, the cumulative impact of development and the need for infrastructure to support development are material considerations in deciding whether individual applications for development are appropriate.

My hon. Friend the Minister has expressed the problems that my constituency faces in a nutshell. Effectively, by looking at green fields rather than the green belt, Leeds city council is going to double the size of every village in my constituency and join them up. We need a special circumstance to allow us to redistribute the green belt around those villages to maintain their unique identity. That is where Leeds city council is failing.

My hon. Friend puts it succinctly, and I am sure that his residents will be hanging on those words. Leeds city council has a duty to do what is right for its area, and it should be listening to its residents to ensure that it protects the special environment where they live and which they enjoy.

When I am out visiting communities and speaking to constituents, I hear widespread support for the need to provide more housing. That sentiment has been expressed in this debate. However, that support is often swiftly followed by concerns about where the houses will be built, and understandably so. We love our countryside. The Government have therefore handed local councils the responsibility for planning to meet the local needs, but meeting our housing goals cannot justify approving the wrong development in the wrong location.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey and my other hon. Friends have expressed their frustration about the fact that Leeds city council is reviewing green belt boundaries to meet local housing needs. I am sure that my hon. Friend and his constituents will continue to make strong representations to the council and will express their views about where new housing should be, as the site allocations document is prepared. I know that my hon. Friends will do that loudly, clearly and correctly.

The Government expect councils to utilise brownfield sites, and we aim for 90% of those sites to be developed by 2020. We are putting in hundreds of millions of pounds to fund their development. We are making it clear to councils that we expect them to develop brownfield sites first and protect our country’s green belt.