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Guildford Borough Council

Volume 652: debated on Wednesday 16 January 2019

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Guildford Borough Council and its local plan.

I am delighted to have you here, Mr Betts—an expert in the very field we are discussing—and also the Minister. Some years back, I had the same sort of role that she has now, although I did not have the entourage behind me. I used to do debates such as this on my own; I think they were too embarrassed. I am very aware that the Minister cannot comment on the specific details of a local plan in her position, which is quasi-judicial. She must be broad and not specific in her replies. Given the time constraint, I intend to try to set the scene, but I will write to the Minister in the next few days with considerably more detail.

The Mole Valley constituency is not coterminous with Mole Valley District Council; the eastern wards of Guildford Borough Council are within my constituency. They are therefore covered by the Guildford council as regards planning, including the draft local plan. Local residents were consulted, as is standard for local authorities in developing their plan. The plan relating to some of the eastern wards involves massive—and I mean massive—loss of green-belt land. For many residents, the green belt was the basis of their desire to live in Mole Valley; it is what makes it attractive. Protests from individuals and groups, especially parish councils, was particularly vigorous, but it was also careful, constructive and thoughtful. In my opinion, the disregard for the views of those dissenters to the plan, and the manner of that disregard, during the progressive consultations by the council leadership was not good.

Of the land that makes up those wards, a significant majority is green belt or similar. Thanks to our robust planning rules, any development that takes place on that land cannot be of high density or particularly high rise. It is therefore only logical that, when Guildford Borough Council looks around for locations on which to develop, it should look first at brown-field sites, as it has done. It should look to offset increasing height and density with innovative design; the Minister and I know from our local government days that that is possible in some particularly difficult areas of inner London.

This Government, including, if I may say so, my hon. Friend the Minister, has made it clear that that should be the default approach to planning home development in local authority plans. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who incidentally is a resident in one of the wards in question, recently highlighted the importance of this approach to English local authorities more broadly, not just this one. With that in mind, I am here to highlight the fact that Guildford Borough Council has produced a draft local plan that puts a full 59% of the proposed new development on green-belt land. On top of that, the council has also brought forward deeply concerning proposals for placing a large quantity of industrial land in the little village of Send, on top of a large increase in homes on green-belt land.

The main town for the borough of Guildford is, unsurprisingly, Guildford town. It is an ancient town; the archaeological footprint goes back to Roman days. Clearly, it is a place that must be protected, and it is, but around Guildford town and beyond there are brown-field sites, places of little ecological or historical worth, that could be utilised to meet the borough’s housing need. It is true that many of these sites appear in the local plan, but they are not being utilised in an innovative way that would best unlock their potential. I believe the council should look further at building higher and denser buildings, particularly around prime sites such as the railway stations, which would provide well-positioned, affordable homes to the younger generation of busy commuters in a busy commuter town.

My hon. Friend may be aware that Guildford has run into difficulties with many villages over the production of neighbourhood plans. My intervention is just to tell him that I too am aware of that, in my role as Government champion for neighbourhood planning, and I am dealing with the problem.

I thank my hon. Friend; I think Guildford council, with its behaviour and reputation, will keep him rather busy.

By definition, the surroundings of those villages cannot have a building of any significant height or density. The number of homes per acre of footprint must be low. I wish to concentrate on just two specific areas, the village of Send and the Wisley site, as examples of what this draft local plan would mean if implemented. Both feed on to the A3, which feeds to Guildford to the south, London to the north and the M25 via junction 10. The A3 is overloaded at peak times, and junction 10 is the worst junction on the M25 for delays, heavy traffic and accidents. In recognition of that, Highways England is proceeding through the rigmarole of extending and developing the junction. However, its work will merely enable the better management of the current traffic flow. I believe that Highways England has not factored in, or has not been able to factor in, the increase that would come from the developments proposed for Send and Wisley, and others. Neither Send nor Wisley has a railway station.

Those problems were a major factor in the rejection of the recent appeal to develop the Wisley site along the lines now suggested in the local plan. That rejection followed Guildford council’s refusal of an application by the owners and developers of the Wisley site. There was an appeal where, after a lengthy—I think it was five weeks—inquiry by the inspector, who endorsed Guildford council’s refusal, the decision was backed by the Secretary of State. The three main reasons for the Secretary of State’s refusal were damage to the green belt, lack of infrastructure and traffic overload. It was a sensible decision all round. I even applaud Guildford council for refusing the application. I ask the Minister, then, to imagine the general amazement when Guildford council did an unabashed and blatant volte-face and shamelessly put the Wisley plan back into its local plan, in spite of everything it has done and in spite of what the inspector and the Secretary of State had said.

There has been a long history of refusals on the site, predominantly on the grounds that the site is green belt and that development would cause considerable difficulties on local roads as well as the A3. The majority of those local roads are winding and narrow and there is no realistic hope that they could ever sensibly be expanded. They generally have no lighting and mostly no pavements, and the nature of the roads is not conducive to cycling—although that does not deter the packs of cyclists who go up and down the roads, particularly at the weekends. The Wisley site, if developed, would result in an isolated island of properties, which would need a full range of infrastructure purpose-built at great cost to make the site even remotely viable. In other words, it would end up as an urban island damaging a rural area.

The promoters behind the Wisley adventure are numerous and the links that bind them together are nothing if not convoluted. There appears to be a Russian influence behind the proposers. We know that, for example, the leader of Guildford Borough Council took a trip, or trips, to Russia with a councillor from the Vale of the White Horse, who was working with the Wisley owners. I understand that the reason for the visit was to encourage Russian development in the UK and presumably in Guildford, with an emphasis on Wisley. I understand the interest, because if Wisley is developed the investors stand to benefit considerably—given the sums of money involved, it may be more accurate to say enormously—but, of course, that is not a planning issue.

I will now briefly turn to the village of Send, which, like Wisley, has no railway station and thus also feeds traffic on to the A3. The village has a single two-way central road, with a number of minor roads branching off. The village is surrounded by green-belt land, with development limited to infill opportunities. The village has about 1,660 properties and a population of about 4,000. It is a village, although if Guildford council has its way, that will change.

The local plan proposes to increase housing in Send by 40% as a starter, with four new slip roads on to the overloaded A3. Additionally, Guildford Borough Council will dump 40% of the borough’s new industrial development on this little village. The overload is obvious.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for listening patiently as I outlined the threat these villages face. I hope she will now indulge me a little further as I gently remind her why the decision to build on green-belt land is so objectionable. Most obviously, it directly contradicts the Government’s policy. The national planning policy framework makes it absolutely clear that permanence is the central feature of the green belt, and that development on it can be sanctioned only in genuinely exceptional circumstances. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), when he was Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, wrote to me confirming that local housing need does not meet the threshold to be considered exceptional.

For all the problems that the development of these sites will create, I am perhaps most concerned about what would be lost. It is widely accepted that only the presence of the green belt has prevented runaway urban sprawl from London and preserved the unique, rural nature of areas such as my constituency. Remember, both sites are right on the edge of the M25 and right on the edge of what we consider to be the spread of London. I therefore resist in the strongest terms any action that undermines the integrity of the green belt, and I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that when that land is gone, it is gone forever, as she will know from our time working together in inner London.

In this context, the willingness of the Guildford Borough Council leadership to demolish so much green belt in these wards is deeply distressing to me and my constituents. It has been noted by some that both wards under threat are not currently represented by Conservative councillors, and have not been for some time. However, knowing the council leader as I do, I am quite sure that that was never a factor in his thinking. It is certainly not a planning issue.

At this stage of the inquiry into the local plan, my hon. Friend the Minister could make a number of moves, if she agrees with my concerns. She could call in all or parts of the plan, or she could direct modifications to it. At the very least, she could put the plan on hold while she and other experts look at the points that have been made.

In complex cases in my professional field it is routine to seek a second independent opinion. Perhaps the Minister could ask the inspector who sat for the five-week Wisley appeal and rejected the application if he could look at both these cases—particularly the Wisley application, because it is identical to that which he advised the Secretary of State to refuse.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Ministers’ Financial Interests. Mr Betts, do you mind if I shuffle around a bit? Of course I should not have my back to the Chair, but I want to address my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) directly.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on local plans—particularly the draft Guildford local plan—and more specifically on the use and development of land within the green belt. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the subject and thank my hon. Friend for the interest he takes in housing, planning and green belt matters, and for bringing these important matters to the Government’s attention. I am also grateful for the opportunity to debate with my predecessor, as a Minister in a former incarnation of my Department, and former leader on Wandsworth Council.

It may come as a disappointment to my hon. Friend that I cannot comment on the specific details of the emerging Guildford local plan, although he mentioned that he already knows that. The Secretary of State has appointed an independent planning inspector to examine the plan, and at some point the Secretary of State may be called upon to act formally in relation to the plan. It is therefore important that he is seen to be acting impartially and allowing due process to run its course in the interests of all parties and the integrity of the planning system as a whole. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will find my contribution at least helpful.

I will start by talking about the importance of local plans in the round. The planning system should be genuinely plan-led, with up-to-date plans providing a framework for addressing the social, economic and environmental priorities for an area, which of course include housing need. Local plans are prepared in consultation with communities and play a key role in delivering needed development and infrastructure in the right places. Community participation is a vital part of accepting the development required to meet our housing needs.

Effectively engaging with communities throughout the process creates the best plans. Having an up-to-date plan in place is essential to planning for our housing requirements, providing clarity to communities and developers about where homes and supporting development should be built and where not, so that development is planned for, rather than the result of speculative planning applications. The Government are determined to build the homes our country needs and help more people get on the housing ladder. We are committed to delivering 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s through policies that aim to make better use of land and vacant buildings in order to provide the homes that communities need.

My hon. Friend raised a very good point about where it is appropriate to have higher density use—around railway stations or wherever. I am sure that point has been forcibly made to the planning inspector at those public meetings, and I am sure that, where appropriate, the planning inspector will take that on board.

I understand that, during the presentation of the local plan, the inspector inquired as to why there was not enough of that sort of development.

I am always interested when planning inspectors ask nuanced, leading questions of local plans and answer them themselves at the same time. We await the planning inspector’s comments with interest.

As my hon. Friend correctly stated, the Guildford local plan is currently under examination, with further hearings due to be held on 12 and 13 February. That will give two more opportunities for people already involved in existing issues to make further comments and for the public to attend and listen. The resumed hearings will focus specifically on the implications of the 2016 household projections for objectively assessed need and the plan’s housing requirement. They will not be an opportunity to discuss matters already considered. Following the hearings, we expect the inspector’s report and recommendations to be published later this year. I encourage my hon. Friend and his constituents to study the findings of the examination at that point.

I reassure my hon. Friend of the robustness of local plan examinations. During an examination, an independent inspector appointed by the Secretary of State will robustly examine whether the plan has been prepared in line with relevant legal requirements. That includes the duty to co-operate with neighbouring authorities and whether it meets the tests of soundness contained within the national planning policy framework, including the extensive consultation requirements for involving local communities.

The inspector, in examining the plan against the tests of soundness, will consider, among other things, whether the plan is based on a sound strategy. In examining these matters, the inspector will take account of the evidence underpinning the plan, national planning policy and the views of all persons who made representations on the plan. I trust that reassures my hon. Friend that the examination of a plan is a thorough and robust process.

As the Guildford plan was submitted for examination before 24 January 2019, it will be examined against national planning policy set out in the 2012 national planning policy framework, including the rules on green belt development, which I will say a little bit more about later. The 2012 national planning policy framework maintains strong protections for the green belt and sets a very high bar for alterations to green-belt boundaries. It allows a local authority to use its local plan to secure necessary alterations to its green belt in “exceptional circumstances”. The Government do not list the exceptional circumstances, as they could vary greatly across the country. Instead, it is for plan makers, and the planning inspector at examination, to check that any change is fully justified. Each local authority is expected to plan to meet local housing need, in full if possible, over the plan period. The local authority then has to consider where to find land to fulfil that need. Only if it does not have enough suitable land because of other constraints and circumstances can a local authority consider a green-belt boundary change. That is the national policy position relevant to Guildford’s draft plan.

The revised national planning policy framework, published in July 2018, will apply to any plan submitted after 24 January 2019. In that framework, following consultation, we clarified the steps that a local authority needs to take to ensure that green-belt release is being proposed only in exceptional circumstances and is fully evidenced and justified. The new framework makes it clear that, in order for exceptional circumstances to exist, the local authority should be able to show that it has examined all other reasonable options for meeting its identified need for development. As I hope my hon. Friend will appreciate, there will therefore be more specific tests to demonstrate that exceptional circumstances exist. That will help examining inspectors to pick up on inadequate efforts to find land. It will still be up to inspectors to decide whether the level of evidence provided meets the exceptional circumstances test.

I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley for raising these important issues. He is aware that the Secretary of State has powers to intervene formally in a plan until it is adopted by an authority. However, we consider it important that the plan is allowed to run its full course and be tested properly first, before such action is considered. I strongly encourage my hon. Friend and his constituents to study the findings of the examination carefully when the inspector issues the final report later this year. I genuinely do thank my hon. Friend for his great interest in this matter. The green belt is precious to us all, as is housing for our children.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.