Skip to main content

Green Belt (Penistone and Stocksbridge)

Volume 645: debated on Tuesday 17 July 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered planning policy relating to green belt and green space in Penistone and Stockbridge.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. My constituency of Penistone and Stocksbridge is a cross-border constituency, taking in north Sheffield and everything west of the M1 in Barnsley. In fact, it crosses the M1 in Dodworth to go right into the heart of Barnsley itself, with the boundary lying just west of the district hospital. One third of the constituency, on the western flank, sits in the Peak District national park. Even the eastern flank is for the most part made up of small towns and villages separated by farmland, green open spaces and woodland. I am sure that my constituency is the sort of place that those who originally devised green-belt policy had in mind when they wanted to protect areas from urban sprawl in the early post-war period. Indeed, it is estimated that approximately 70% of the land in my constituency enjoys green-belt status.

I think that everyone agrees that this country has a housing crisis. We simply do not have enough stock to supply today’s needs, never mind the needs of future generations. It is not a new problem: successive Governments have failed to get new homes built and to reform the broken housing market.

As we know, under the former Labour Government, housing requirements were calculated at national level and targets were set for each regional planning authority. The regional planning mechanism had then to allocate numbers from that target for each local planning authority, with land set aside by the latter authorities to satisfy the target. Of course, once land had been zoned for housing, individual planning applications were more likely to be approved—a principle that is still in place now.

That all changed with the accession to power of the coalition Government and the subsequent abolition of regional spatial strategies. Decision making was, apparently, being returned to local level and democracy was being restored. I remember well the debates here on the claim made by the Conservatives when they were in opposition. Despite the abolition of housing targets, local authorities were still required, under the new arrangements, to set aside enough land to satisfy housing demand. The mechanism for doing that has been dubbed the local plan. Part of the planning process for that requires the development of a strategic housing market assessment to assess housing need. In other words, local authorities have been required through the national planning policy framework to identify enough land for housing growth.

The impact of that policy change is already being seen. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the number of planning applications approved year on year both on greenfield sites in the green belt and for largescale housing development within areas of outstanding natural beauty has nearly doubled since the national planning policy framework came into force in 2012. The impact of the planning process is therefore significant. In Barnsley, for example, meeting the target would involve building 20,000 new homes. In 2017, the CPRE identified 5,700 threats to the borough’s green belt, and we shall soon see what the allocation for Sheffield looks like, as the draft local plan is imminent. I need to point out, however, that in 2017 the CPRE reported 6,100 threats to green-belt designations in the city.

As I said, we all recognise the need for more housing. Despite the Government’s pledge that green belt land will be protected, the truth is very different. Indeed, in both the authorities that cover my constituency, the green belt has had to be examined during the process of putting together a draft plan for publication and consultation. Those reviews have taken place, though, alongside a call to developers for suitable sites for consideration in the local plan. In effect, that has had a dramatic cumulative impact. High target numbers have combined with green belt review and the traditional call to developers to put previously out-of-reach sites within the grasp of those who want to put shovels in the ground. Thus it is that our green belt protection is in danger of being eroded in my constituency.

Worse still, the idea that brownfield sites should come first has been downgraded. Brownfield sites unfortunately often require intensive preparation and—I acknowledge—soak up significant resource. Local authorities have to be proactive to get such sites fit for market as housing land. No wonder developers tend to go for the easy option—I do not particularly blame them for that—which in any case offer better returns.

In the Barnsley part of my constituency, the local plan is almost complete. As I said, we are about to start the process in Sheffield. We are told by the Government that democracy is at the heart of the process, but the experience of my constituency is somewhat different. Indeed, a criticism made in 2016 by the Campaign to Protect Rural England was that the Government’s local plan expert group completely failed to grasp the need for meaningful public involvement in the development of local plans. It was clear to the CPRE, and very disappointing, that the Government preferred instead to consult on a fully drafted plan, rather than allowing sufficient time for focused consultation on issues and options. In other words, the plans are developed in private, behind closed doors, and then put out as a complete draft, with no significant involvement of local communities.

Even in areas where local people have spent many hours working up their own neighbourhood plans—a concept encouraged and legislated into place by this Government and one that I support—we have seen those plans ignored by the Government’s inspectors. In one example in my constituency, a neighbourhood plan made reference to an area of green-belt land that local people thought should remain designated. The strong local view was based on an acceptance of the need for more housing, and the plan incorporated more housing, but it was to be affordable and located on the developed site of the Don valley.

That aspiration was completely ignored at public inquiry by the inspector, in effect forcing Barnsley Council to put the other sites in the next draft plan. They were totally contrary to the neighbourhood plan. Only when the unelected Historic England intervened were the sites removed, because their development would have threatened the historic setting of a listed packhorse bridge that crosses the River Don. “Thank God for Historic England,” I say—but where is local democracy in all of this? Neighbourhood plans are supposed to represent the best of local democracy, but planning inspectors are riding roughshod over them. As I have said, Sheffield is about to embark on its own formal consultations, as required by the local plan process. The city’s population is approximately twice the size of Barnsley’s and the urban area much more densely populated, but it is nevertheless a city where green spaces are enormously important. Indeed, a significant proportion of the city lies within the boundary of the Peak District national park.

I must say that the early signs are worrying. The city council is adamant that brownfield sites are to be prioritised and that only by having a robust plan will we be able to keep the right balance between the ambitions of developers and the best interests of the city. I believe the council is genuinely committed to those outcomes, but history tells me that it will have to work very hard to achieve them, especially after what we have seen in Barnsley, where the planning inspector insisted that significant extra sites in our villages were included in the plans that Barnsley submitted. In this case, as with Barnsley, the odds are somewhat stacked against success, yet CPRE informs me that there is no need to build on green belt or green spaces in Sheffield. It has five years of deliverable land supply on brownfield land, and 11 years of land supply on brownfield in total—land for 13,145 homes.

In view of Government policy, I remain sceptical of Sheffield’s ability to avoid that outcome. Past experience has also shown that all too often affordable housing plans are overturned in favour of houses that deliver a higher profit margin. Promised infrastructure upgrades are seldom completed, and green sites are used instead of brownfield sites that are more expensive to develop. In evidence, I turn again to CPRE, which reports that,

“nearly three-quarters of the housing proposed on land to be released from the Green Belt will be unaffordable for most people living in the local area”.

In fact,

“planning consultants Glenigan found only 16% of homes built in Green Belt since 2009 were affordable”.

I started this contribution by making it clear that we all understand that more housing needs to be developed, in order to meet the current and future demand, but I reiterate the key point that it must be the right housing in the right places. A significant proportion of the new housing we need should be affordable, whether it is for sale or for rent, and as much as possible of that new stock must be provided in urban areas, on brownfield sites.

What are the chances of achieving that, given the current shape of Government policy? The calculation of housing need, for instance, is opaque, but CPRE says:

“The Government should make the method for calculating housing need clearer, but this should also be more clearly integrated with what is realistically achievable”.

It then goes on to say:

“One of the key flaws of the…approach is an over-emphasis on market signals”,

as part of objectively assessed need assessments. That is exactly the problem. The provision of new housing promotes valuable economic activity, yes—as I say, I do not blame developers for pursuing attractive green-belt sites—but it also meets an extremely important social need. We need a policy that delivers the housing necessary for our young people, for people on low incomes and for single-person households, but we will not achieve that crucial social outcome within the current policy framework.

What we will see, if we are not careful, is over-development in small towns such as Penistone in my constituency, which is threatened by a 30% increase in size—a small market town facing a 30% increase. That will destroy the character of Penistone, and the houses that will be built will not be the ones we need for local people, but rather more expensive offerings that will change the social mix of the communities that make up my largely rural constituency. The social divide in the county is huge, and there is a 14-year discrepancy in life expectancy between one part of Sheffield and another. How can we justify a policy that threatens to destroy the reasonable, well-balanced social mix that we enjoy in those areas, and will make that divide even deeper and more difficult to deal with?

At the heart of green-belt policy is a desire to stop urban encroachment.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

The interruption was welcome, because we are now joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who is also the elected Mayor of the Sheffield city region. I am pleased that he has joined us.

As I was saying, at the heart of green-belt policy is a desire to stop urban encroachment and to preserve our smaller towns and villages. Although I appreciate that green-belt land sometimes does not serve that purpose any longer and should be changed, the majority of the green belt still fulfils that important role. It is also worth noting the potential impact on our natural environment. Our green belt covers 53% of farmland subject to environmental stewardship schemes and 30% of the local nature reserves created between 2009 and 2015. How on earth can we expect to meet our biodiversity targets—the Government’s targets—if we pursue our current trajectory? Worryingly, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is consulting on a weakening of protection for local wildlife sites in the NPPF. I would appreciate his comments on that key point, which is a source of great concern for the Sheffield wildlife trust.

Time and again, we have heard this Government talk about protecting the green belt, but its “call for sites” approach to local plans effectively encourages reviews of green-belt land by local authorities, such as Sheffield and Barnsley, with a significant proportion of green belt. In Sheffield’s case, that proportion is 63%, and Barnsley’s green-belt coverage is 79%. Will the Minister give us assurances that green-belt policy is more than just warm words, and that “brownfield first” really means that?

Local democracy and involvement should be at the heart of the process of creating a local plan, yet in my experience the opposite seems to be the case. Time and again, constituents have told me that they feel outside the process, and I applied for the debate because they asked me to bring the matter up in this place. They tell me that consultations feel like tick-box exercises, and that they often feel faced with faits accomplis. Can the Minister give us assurances that local people’s views matter, and will he instruct councils that they should take local people with them when forming their plans? Will he also tell his planning inspectors that the same standard is expected of them?

Will the Minister look at reviewing housing policy to ensure that we deliver the homes we need where we need them? A large number of my constituents have lived in small villages and towns for generations. They love their communities. All the research by the Countryside Alliance demonstrates that one of the key factors for people living in rural areas is their genuine love of the communities they live in. It is not nimbyism to want to preserve the integrity of those places. They accept that new housing is needed. In Oxspring, the village I referred to earlier, the neighbourhood plan reflected the need for new housing. Indeed, most of my constituents recognise that their children will benefit from a proportionate increase in housing stock in their communities.

When will the Government drop their ideological approach to this policy area, adopt the mantle of Macmillan and previous Tory Governments, and deliver the housing we need rather than the housing that developers think we need?

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. Apologies if I delayed proceedings during the Divisions.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing this important debate. I am delighted to be able to respond to the points she raised, not least because I, too, represent a beautiful rural constituency and they are close to my heart. It is clear from everything she said that both the green belt and green spaces are important to her and her constituents. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about those issues and to underline the Government’s commitment to maintaining strong protection.

I should first point out that, as Members know, the Secretary of State has a quasi-judicial role in the planning system. I am sure they understand that it therefore would not be appropriate for me to comment on the detail of individual decisions or plans. However, I can talk about the broader issues raised. I shall set out what more we are doing to protect our natural environment while building the homes we need, as well as our national policy on the green belt and green spaces.

The Government are committed to protecting our precious environment and place great importance on striking a balance between enabling housing and commercial development, and continuing to protect and enhance the natural environment, minimising the impact on biodiversity. In particular, our planning reform package, which includes the revised draft national planning policy framework and reforms to developer contributions, is fundamental to ensuring that we are improving the environment at the same time as delivering the homes we need. The revised NPPF will be published shortly.

One of the key ways we are continuing to protect the environment is through the provision and protection of green spaces, which are part of our natural heritage. They provide balance in urban areas and improve the quality of life for all. Safe and accessible green infrastructure can play an important role in addressing health and wellbeing needs, which is particularly needed in our local communities, and indeed, in modern society generally.

The Government recognise the development pressures that areas such as green spaces face, particularly in the current housing crisis, but we are committed to their continued protection. To do that, the NPPF sets out that planning policies relating to open space, sports and recreation facilities, and opportunities for new provision should be based on robust and up-to-date assessments of need. That means that existing open space, sports and recreational buildings and land should not be built on unless an assessment has been undertaken. The assessment should show that they are surplus to needs, or that there the loss will be mitigated by making equivalent or better provision in a suitable location.

The framework also encourages communities to use their local and neighbourhood plans—an issue that is important to me, too—to identify green areas of particular importance to them. They can then be given special protection by designating them as local green spaces, which means that they cannot be affected by development. Hon. Members will be pleased to know that the draft revised NPPF maintains those protections.

The point I made in my speech is that in one community in my constituency, the Government’s planning inspector attempted to override the provisions made in the neighbourhood plan.

The hon. Lady may not know, but as a Back Bencher, I, too, had that experience in a village called Oakley in my constituency. As a result, the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 strengthened neighbourhood plans in the considerations of planning inspectors, particularly prior to referendums. One pledge that I can make to her is that in my tenure in this job, however long that may be, I will do my best to promote, enhance and strengthen neighbourhood plans. I agree with her that they enable local communities to feel that planning is done by them, not to them; that very often, they result in more housing, not less; and that we should use them more across the country.

The green belt is another key feature of our natural heritage that fundamentally aims to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. It is a national policy, but it is applied locally, with green-belt land defined and protected by local planning authorities. By providing strong protection for the openness of green-belt land, the NPPF prevents inappropriate development. It makes it clear that most new building is not appropriate there, and should be refused planning permission except in very special circumstances. That sets a high bar for developers, and is part of the reason why protection of the green belt has proved so effective over the past half century.

The draft revised framework remains committed to that protection. It states that changing green-belt boundaries is possible only in exceptional circumstances, using the local plan process of consultation and rigorous examination by the Planning Inspectorate. It proposes a clarification of the exceptional circumstances test and sets out that a strategic plan-making authority will be able to alter a green-belt boundary only if it can show that it has examined all other reasonable options for meeting the development needs it identified. That means that an authority’s strategy should take into account several different factors.

For example, planning policies and decisions should give substantial weight to the value of using suitable brownfield land in settlements for homes and other identified needs, and support opportunities to remediate degraded or underused land. Another factor to be considered is the optimisation of the density of development, to ensure that authorities have significantly raised minimum densities in towns and city centres, and in other locations well served by public transport. Furthermore, the authority’s strategy should be informed by discussion with neighbouring authorities to see if they can take some of the necessary development.

Sometimes, exceptional circumstances may require land to be removed from the green belt. However, that does not mean that we are concreting over the beautiful landscapes for which England is known around the world and to which the hon. Lady referred.

The Minister’s words are very welcome. He is being very generous with his time, and is very well-meaning, but the point is that 425,000 new homes are proposed on the green belt in local plans as things stand now. How can that represent exceptional circumstances?

Proposed they may be, but the point is whether they will make it through the inspection procedure. It still remains the right of the Secretary of State, of course, to call in proposals where they are of national importance. There are particular safeguards.

I would point to the fact that the decisions are made by local democratically elected politicians. The hon. Lady raised an issue about engagement and the decisions that are made. I urge her to take that up with her confrères and colleagues on the councils concerned. She should be raising her concerns with them as well, as I hope and assume she has.

She asked about local housing need. A further consideration to green-belt policy is the calculation of local housing need. House prices are simply unaffordable in many places, meaning that too many people are unable to get on the housing ladder. Each local authority should assess local housing need and plan to meet it in full where possible. As part of the package of planning reforms, we have introduced a more transparent standard method for calculating housing need, which aims to make sure that we take the crucial first step of planning for the right number of homes. Although green belt acts as a constraint, the draft revised framework sets out that the calculation should be carried out before assessing where the need could be met. That is because constraints such as green belt are relevant when assessing how to meet need, rather than when assessing the scale of need.

Once again, let me thank the hon. Lady for securing this valuable debate. Before I close, I want to raise one issue she talked about. Local wildlife sites are of particular importance to me. The revised national planning policy framework will clarify protections for local wildlife sites. My predecessor as Minister for Housing met with the Wildlife Trusts and wrote to MPs confirming that. We can dig out a copy of that letter for the hon. Lady.

Finally, I emphasise the importance to me personally of neighbourhood plans. In my own constituency, I have been at the forefront of promoting those plans as a way of controlling and directing the right kind of development, in the right place, which suits local people and is responsive to their needs. As I say, I will do my best in this job to try to promote them in the future.

Question put and agreed to.