Skip to main content

Urban Food Growing (Planning)

Volume 593: debated on Wednesday 4 March 2015

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I secured this debate partly to highlight a constituency issue and to ask the Minister how the planning system can better protect food growing in urban areas. There are obviously many pressures on land in our towns and cities. We need employment space, public spaces, and, above all, we really need to start a systematic programme of house building again. But our green spaces are also important.

The Wildlife Trusts and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds found in their “Act for Nature” campaign that the most deprived communities are 10 times less likely to live in the greenest areas and that access to green space helps to reduce health inequalities. The creation of green corridors in urban areas helps to avoid habitat fragmentation, reduces the urban heat island effect, better harvests rainwater and improves air quality.

As the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) noted in the main Chamber a few weeks ago,

“increasing the amount of ‘green infrastructure’ by 10% could entirely offset the impact of rising temperatures in such high-density urban centres.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2015; Vol. 590, c. 981.]

Urban food growing is very much part of that picture.

People have become much more concerned about the provenance of their food. They are keen to see more sustainable food and farming practices and they want to protect urban biodiversity and wildlife. Urban agriculture should be seen very much as part of a strategy to tackle food poverty and the public health challenges associated with poor diet.

As recent reports by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have highlighted, the issue is also one of food security, food sovereignty and the UK’s declining self-sufficiency in food. Achieving food security is about building environmental and economic resilience in the face of climate change, using resources more sustainably in the production and supply of food, reducing food waste, lowering high emissions from the food supply chain and promoting healthy and sustainable diets. I am pleased and proud that Bristol is in the vanguard of that movement.

Back in 2009 Bristol council commissioned a report by Joy Carey, “Who feeds Bristol? Towards a resilient food plan”. We became one of the first cities in the UK to establish our own food policy council, which drives forward policies to increase the amount of land available for growing food and to safeguard the diversity of retailers. We launched the good food plan for Bristol, which has the ambition of ensuring that everyone has access to good, affordable, healthy food. The Bristol Food Network helps to connect up all those people and businesses with a shared vision of transforming Bristol into a truly sustainable food city.

A study by the university of Gloucestershire-based countryside and community research institute found that for every £1 of investment in community food projects, there was a sevenfold social return on that investment to the community. There are far too many such projects in Bristol to name them all, but I want to mention a few. The Severn Project provides horticultural training to people recovering from drug and alcohol dependency. It is a successful social enterprise, acting as a hub for satellite growers and providing access to land, equipment, sales and distribution. It estimates that every kilogram of its produce is worth £15 to the local economy.

Elm Tree farm is based on a 35-acre site in my constituency and offers vocational training to about 60 people who have autism or learning disabilities, illustrating the therapeutic value of food growing projects, as well as offering them a route into work. Incredible Edible Bristol advocates guerrilla gardening, taking over grass verges and other underused land to plant seeds and grow food. The Matthew Tree Project’s FOODTURES initiative helps long-term unemployed people back into skilled work through training in horticulture, food processing and supply. It brings the best nutritious food to the poorest areas of the city.

Last but not least, Feed Bristol is an exemplary study of the social, environmental and economic benefits of community food growing. Over the past three years, it has directly helped 36 people back into employment, and in acting as an incubator site for businesses related to food and to wildlife, six new businesses have been launched. Feed Bristol engages many thousands of disadvantaged people and school children in activities on the site, from helping to educate children in the value of food and where it comes from, to developing horticultural skills. Sadly, however, we are now engaged in a last-ditch attempt to alter a new MetroBus route that will involve the building of a bus-only junction on prime agricultural land, which includes the Feed Bristol site.

Since the MetroBus scheme was first designed more than five years ago, the area planned for the junction has become a new hub of Bristol’s urban food growing movement. If the scheme goes ahead, which we fear it will, the junction will pass through not only the Avon Wildlife Trust’s award-winning community food growing project, Feed Bristol, which I have just mentioned, but the long-standing Stapleton allotments, the Sims Hill Shared Harvest organic community-supported agriculture market garden and the Edible Futures educational market-gardening co-operative.

The land under threat is part of what is known as the “blue finger”, which is highly fertile, food growing soil, predominantly grade 1—coded blue on maps, which is how the area gets its name—and some peripheral areas of grade 2 and 3, collectively known as “best and most versatile” land. Less than 3% of soil in the UK is grade 1, so the blue finger land is a valuable asset not only for Bristol, but for the whole UK. The land is also designated green belt and includes the Frome valley conservation area, as well as a wildlife corridor and woodland, but none of that has protected it from development.

The transport scheme received planning consent back in August and is now with the Department for Transport for final funding approval. Meanwhile, the council, in its eagerness to start felling trees, has applied to the High Court to clear the site of protesters, who have been camped for the past month on the land, high up in the treetops in tree houses. The protesters have a tremendous amount of support from local residents and from further afield. I do not know whether the Minister can do anything to help us in our fight to protect the site. I have written to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and met and written to Transport Minister Baroness Kramer. We have not yet given up hope.

On the broader issues raised, national planning policy includes the aim to protect best and most versatile agricultural land in recognition of its role as a precious national asset, essential to our future food security. Once land is lost to development, it is extremely unlikely that it will ever be returned to agricultural use. In 2011, however, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reported a huge loss of BMV land to development over recent years, although we do not really know the extent, as such data are not collected systematically.

Furthermore, there has been a weakening of the protection given to BMV land, most recently as a result of changes to the national planning policy framework in March 2012. Will the Minister discuss with her DEFRA colleagues the feasibility of monitoring the loss to development of our most productive soils—a process that is vital to understanding the scale of the problem? What plans does her Department have to strengthen the protection of our best soil in national planning policy as critical to our food security? That was promised in the Conservative party’s “Open Source Planning” policy green paper in 2010. Then, in the natural environment White Paper, the Government said that they wanted

“to protect our best and most versatile agricultural land.”

Another problem is that while the planning practice guidance supports space for growing food, the national planning policy framework does not include local food growing, which tends to mean that local plans do not include it either. Promoting local food may be put into a local plan—in Bristol, it is included in both the local plan and the core strategy—but it does not have to be. At the national level, no link is presumed between sustainable development and supporting local food. Food production is missing, yet it is a major land use. It thus falls to experts at the local level to show that local food meets the core planning principles of the NPPF.

Will the Minister acknowledge that including local food in the NPPF and demonstrating how it meets sustainable development objectives would make a big difference? Will she say something on the value of food growing to the achievement of sustainable development inherent in the planning system? The economic strategy of the West of England local enterprise partnership also does not mention food production. Will the Minister comment on the relationship between that strategy and the core strategies and local plans of the west of England local authorities?

In a recent speech, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs talked about the creation of

“Food Enterprise Zones to kick-start local food economies and join up farming, manufacturing, distribution and retail firms”,

which sounds to be very much along the lines of what we want to achieve in Bristol. I appreciate that the Minister is in a different Department, but it would be good to hear more about how such plans can be protected by the planning system and the Minister’s Department.

The MetroBus bus-only junction project has caused serious concerns about how allotments are sold off for development—a process that requires the consent of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Last year, Labour’s shadow Communities Secretary found that the Secretary of State had rejected only two out of 83 applications by English councils to sell off allotment sites for development between 2010 and 2013. So is it simply a rubber-stamping exercise by the Secretary of State, or can we rely on the process to protect our allotments?

The council’s application to move the Stapleton allotments for the MetroBus junction did not mention that the site to which the allotments would be relocated had considerably inferior soil and was already home to a beautiful wildflower meadow and wildlife corridor. Subsequently, the soil on the new site was discovered to contain levels of lead too high for community gardens, but the Minister’s Department was not made aware of that. The council proposes to take topsoil from the BMV land and use it to replace the topsoil in the new location, but like biodiversity offsetting, the science of how well the soil will work in the new location is unclear. A number of experts have expressed doubts.

Turning to the green belt, under the planning system large transport systems should only be developed on green belt in exceptional circumstances and the potential harm caused should be clearly outweighed by other considerations. In the planning application, however, those exceptional circumstances seemed to rest on fairly unsubstantiated claims that it would “unlock employment”, while the “potential harm” to the area was not assessed. To be fair to the Minister, I do not intend to go into details of the MetroBus scheme, which I appreciate is a matter for her colleagues in the Department for Transport, but I flag up the frustrations felt by people that the planning system was not adequately considering matters that it should have been considering when the scheme went through.

I will finish by expressing my concerns about how local people were consulted about the scheme, how the situation was handled by the planning committee on the night of the decision and just how difficult it has been throughout the process, which has been going on for several years, to challenge it. The Minister’s boss is a great advocate of localism, but it is clear that not enough local power was in local people’s hands.

When the planning committee met to consider the application in August last year, it was told by officers that it was an all or nothing situation and that funding for the whole £200 million bus rapid transit 3 scheme would be withdrawn if the application was not approved there and then. That does not square with what I was later told by the Transport Minister, Baroness Kramer, but with that threat hanging over the committee’s head, the application went through.

All along, we have found it incredibly difficult to get information from the council about whether alternatives to the bus-only junction had been considered, what the benefit-cost ratio of those alternatives was, what discussions, if any, there had been with other stakeholders, what rules ought to be followed and whether the correct applications had been made and permissions granted. The balance of power is weighted against local people, and the Government’s recent clampdown on the right to judicial review, which was already out of reach for most community groups, has made it even worse.

I do not know whether the Minister can do anything to help us save the blue finger. I hope that I have managed to persuade her that this is a serious issue and that, even if we cannot protect the blue finger in this instance, it would be good if her Department—or a future, Labour Department for Communities and Local Government—would look at how we can change the planning system to make sure a situation like this one does not happen again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing this debate on a topic on which I have a great deal of sympathy with her. I am from Portsmouth, the most densely populated city in Europe—we are also an island—and so very much understand the importance of green space and of allotments in particular.

The Government recognise how important allotments and other open spaces are for local people. They provide people with the opportunity to enjoy regular physical exercise, meet new people in their neighbourhood and benefit from a healthier diet, regardless of income. It is only right that the law reflects that importance.

Local authorities must provide allotments where they see there is a demand for them, and cannot sell or change the use of such land without first getting consent from the Secretary of State. Both the mandatory statutory criteria, set out in section 8 of the Allotments Act 1925, and the additional policy criteria ensure that allotment holders will not lose their plots or have nowhere left to garden. Those criteria make sure that unless there are exceptional circumstances, a site that is fully or mostly occupied will not receive consent for disposal. The criteria also ensure that, before consent is given, the local authority must show that it has promoted allotment gardening and made residents aware of the site it plans to dispose of. Where an allotment site is mentioned in the local plan—perhaps as a designated local green space—the local authority will not get consent unless it can show it is not acting contrary to the plan.

Last year the Department published “Allotment disposal guidance: safeguards and alternatives”, a new set of guidance clarifying the legal and policy safeguards in place to ensure that disposal is properly and thoroughly handled, which is available on the website. The process for handling disposal applications is now wholly transparent and sets out each factor that will be taken into account when deciding whether each of the criteria has been met.

We recognise that demand for allotment plots still outstrips supply, but the situation is slowly improving. A survey of allotment waiting lists carried out by the National Allotment Society in 2013 indicated an average of 52 people waiting for every 100 plots, compared with 57 per 100 plots when a similar survey was carried out two years earlier. In addition, the survey indicated that in the two years before it was conducted, 65 new allotment sites had been brought into use by 51 councils, covering 30 hectares, creating nearly 2,000 new plots.

Before I turn to areas of regulation and policy that can assist communities, I will address specific points raised by the hon. Lady, who has asked for some practical help. As she recognises, my limited brief does not extend to either the Department for Transport or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but I am here to be helpful. I am happy to consider whether there could be more encouragement for local food growing when the NPPF is next revised, but she obviously also needs help now.

Metrobus required planning permission from the three local authorities that cover stretches of the proposed bus route, as well as an order under the Transport and Works Act 1982 from the Department for Transport and separate consent to dispose of the sites, which technically are allotment land—the application for that consent is still under consideration by the Secretary of State. It is true that now the planning permissions have been granted only a court could set them aside. We are also beyond the stage at which the Secretary of State can exercise his powers to call in a planning proposal.

As a Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government, it would not be proper for me to comment on precise aspects of planning permissions, the handling of an application or any planning conditions imposed. Those are a matter for the local planning authority. As I have said, one aspect is still under consideration by my Secretary of State. The merits of the scheme have been outlined to the hon. Lady in a letter from the local mayor. I should clarify that the council is free to submit a revised planning application that would be determined in the usual way; I put that on the record now for her benefit.

An important part of localism is ensuring that councils and communities can protect the green spaces that are precious to them. Local people know their areas better than Whitehall does, and are best placed to make decisions about their planning needs. Local plans, supported by neighbourhood plans, are the best way to steer development to the appropriate locations and decide where planning restraint is essential.

The planning system is led by the policies in the local plan. Those policies are adopted only after public consultation, followed by independent examination by a planning inspector who will check and report on the soundness of each draft plan. Planning law requires that specific planning permissions be obtained before any material change of land use occurs. Planning permission is also necessary for any building or engineering works affecting the land.

Planning policy also puts local communities at the heart of planning. In our NPPF we ask planners to assess the needs of the food production industry and resolve associated planning barriers. Planners should be no less keen to support people in our towns and cities who wish to grow their own food, whether on an allotment or in a domestic garden. The framework also asks local planning authorities to insist on high standards of design, including when it comes to the layout of our towns and cities and the provision of green space within them.

Allotments, along with community gardens, urban farms and other such land uses, are open spaces of public benefit. That should always be recognised by local authorities when preparing assessments of need and audits of existing open space and recreational facilities in their areas, or when considering the impact of new development. Some allotments are on the outskirts of towns, and may fall within the protections given to the green belt or other types of designated area. There, the local planning authority should refuse planning permission for inappropriate new building that would harm the openness of the land. Moreover, in conservation areas, any gardens, parks and other green spaces between the protected buildings may be identified by policies in the local plan as part of the characterisation of the area and preserved for that reason.

The phrase “green infrastructure” may be jargon, but it helps to make the point that the provision and retention of high-quality green open space and tree planting are not only vital to the well-being of communities, but should be part of the strategy to mitigate the effects of climate change. In all our towns and cities, the provision and enhancement of green space is important. The Government have introduced a range of new powers to allow individuals and communities to protect the spaces of most value to them. Those powers include the power for communities to create local green spaces—a designation made as part of a local plan or a neighbourhood plan that enables communities to identify green areas of particular importance and impose protection as strong as that applied to green-belt land. That will be of interest to the hon. Lady.

Neighbourhood planning is capturing the imagination of communities across the country. About 1,400 communities have started the neighbourhood planning process, and more are joining them each week. Neighbourhood plans have a legal weight prior to being adopted through a referendum. The fact that a plan is being written and is in place, subject to a referendum, gives it legal weight; it does not have that status only after a referendum.

I am pleased to see that a number of policies on allotments are coming forward from neighbourhood plans. In some instances, they are about maintaining existing provision, and in other cases they seek to promote the creation of new allotments. If the hon. Lady is interested, I suggest that she look at the neighbourhood plans for St James in Exeter, Thame and Cringleford, which have done some trailblazing things on allotments.

There is also the community right to bid. More than 300 green spaces have been listed as community assets, which ensures that groups can pause the sale of land for up to six months to give them the opportunity to raise the money to buy the land. There is also the community right to reclaim land, which enables community groups to acquire vacant or underused land and bring it back into beneficial use.

The hon. Lady has clearly been active in campaigning on this issue for her constituents. She has spoken to other Departments, and I encourage her to carry on speaking to the Department for Transport, although most of the levers are clearly in her local authority’s hands. Although she will not want to consider failure in her campaign, if she is faced with the option of a plan B, my Department may be able to do some things to assist her, given its remit. The hon. Lady said that Bristol is a trailblazer on this issue, and it is also a trailblazer in recognising the importance of social enterprise. The local enterprise partnership recognises the importance of social enterprises, and it is focused on providing opportunities for economic regeneration, getting those who are in long-term unemployment back to work and so forth. Although I am not completely au fait with them, there are clearly a number of enterprises and ventures that are of value to the community that are contingent on the piece of land in question. If the hon. Lady were faced with that situation, we would not want those enterprises to be placed if jeopardy. If they need help relocating, finance to assist them or any other support mechanism, officials in my Department will be able to help with signposting, and I will be able to talk the hon. Lady through the support and options that are available. If she were in that situation, I would encourage her to get in touch with me. Obviously, her aim is to prevent that from happening. I hope that my outlining of some of the policies available has left her better informed.

I sense that the Minister is about to draw her remarks to a close, but she has not yet addressed the issue of soil quality and the protection of the best and most versatile land in the planning system, which is one of the key things that we have been pushing for.

That is on my list; I was trying to find it. As the hon. Lady said, that is not within my Department’s remit; it is very much a DEFRA issue. However, I will undertake to write to her about the prospects, and about what is done currently and what may be done in the future to monitor what is happening to high-grade land.

I appreciate that the issue of farming, soil quality and so on falls primarily within DEFRA’s remit. However, I asked the Minister’s Department a year ago whether this could be a special category that is protected within the planning system, and the answer was that it could perhaps be dealt with in the local plans. However, as I have outlined, it is not on local authorities’ radars yet. Could the Minister undertake at least to talk to her officials about whether that is possible? [Interruption.] I think a note is winging its way towards her.

Yes, certainly. I have said that I am happy to look at those things when the NPPF is revised. The clock is clearly ticking for the hon. Lady on this issue, and I hope that I have been able to count her through some of the levers that are available to her. She said that it has been difficult for her to get to the bottom of certain facts. Clearly, the process that should be being followed is transparent. It is on the website if she has any technical questions. If she has had difficulty in getting certain facts and pieces of information, I would be happy to follow that up with her.

When I was a councillor in the London borough of Barnet, I was responsible for allotments, and the big fear for many of the allotment holders was that the council wanted to sell off the allotments for development. The Minister said that under section 23 of the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908 local authorities have an obligation to provide allotments. If the Minister cannot answer me now, will she write to me later to confirm that that may not be the case in London, because of the London Government Act 1963, so the same obligations may not apply to the London borough of Barnet?

I would be happy to write to my hon. Friend on that issue. I will also write to the hon. Member for Bristol East about her ambitions for greater monitoring when the policy framework is revised, and about soil and further things that can be done to encourage local food production. I would be happy to look at that.

In conclusion, I encourage the hon. Lady to maintain dialogue with my Department and others to see whether we can do anything further if she is not successful in her campaign, and if those social enterprises need support in relocating or developing their business plans. I will follow up with a letter, and I encourage her to keep talking to my Department and others.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.