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North Street, Keighley: Green Space

Volume 718: debated on Monday 11 July 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Adam Holloway.)

May I extend my thanks to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to Mr Speaker for granting this urgent debate? It is truly urgent, because in just 10 days’ time, people in Keighley will be heading to the polls to vote in a public referendum to determine the fate of a key strategic site in the heart of Keighley.

I am, of course, talking about the much-loved green space that adjoins North Street and the top of Cavendish Street, right in the centre of Keighley. It is a unique site, and people in Keighley quite rightly care about its future. They want to have a say in how it looks, how it feels, how it interacts with the remainder of Keighley’s streetscape and, of course, how is utilised long into the future.

The unique site was once the home of Keighley College, before the college was demolished and rebuilt on a bigger and better site, presenting a rare opportunity for a newly created open site right in the heart of Keighley, ready to be used by all. It was sown with grass and was quickly adopted, by all across Keighley, by the name “the green space”. Hope was raised and a new open green space was created. A new green lung right in the heart of Keighley was formed, with the potential to go on to be landscaped as a fantastic town centre space, perhaps planted with trees, wild flowers, and a permanent grassed area for all in Keighley to enjoy—because place, and a sense of place, are important.

If you were to join me in Keighley, Madam Deputy Speaker—and you are very welcome to do so, as is the Minister—you would see some of the fantastic architecture that we have there. North Street, for instance, has some beautiful buildings. Some, of course, are in need of refurbishment, but nevertheless, those buildings are stunning. Cavendish Street is the same. While our high streets face some challenges, as many high streets do, our town centre has soul, and I believe that the green space—uniquely positioned in the centre of town, at the junction of North Street and Cavendish Street, opposite the fantastically imposing beauty of the Carnegie library, adjacent to the town hall and the Town Hall Square with our awe-inspiring cenotaph—makes the soul of our town all the better.

All this is at risk, however. Labour-run Bradford Council is determined to build on this key site, stripping away that hope of Keighley’s town centre streetscape being improved by a permanent green space in the centre of our town. As I said earlier, place and the sense of place are important, and, in my view, Bradford Council’s determination to build on the site, no matter what, only illustrates its lack of willingness to consider the negative impact that that will have on Keighley’s soul. But there is a bigger, underlying, and much more detrimental issue. We are governed by a local authority that is unprepared to listen—to listen to what the people in Keighley want.

I am proud to say that this Conservative Government announced that Keighley would receive £33.6 million as part of its towns fund deal. That included some seriously exciting projects for our town, including a new skills hub, a new manufacturing, engineering and future tech hub, and more money for town centre improvements, regeneration, and cultural offerings such as Keighley Creative—but also funding for many, many other projects.

I am also proud to say that as part of the Keighley towns fund deal, this Conservative Government have allocated money to help deliver a new health and wellbeing hub, to improve local healthcare services and address some of the health and wellbeing inequalities in our town. I am delighted to have been directly involved in helping to secure these funds, along with the great team which forms our Keighley towns fund board, an advisory body in which many are volunteers and give up their own time to help Keighley in a positive way.

We do need a new health and wellbeing hub: one needs only to speak to representatives of the many great organisations in Keighley that provide health and wellbeing services to realise and acknowledge that. However, throughout the towns fund application process, even during the many years before my time representing Keighley, Bradford Council has been determined to ensure that the green space is built on, no matter what.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Yet again, he is demonstrating what a feisty campaigner he is for his constituents in Keighley and Ilkley. Although my constituency is, of course, some distance from Keighley, I do know the green space, and I understand the points that he is making. Does he agree that this is an example of the need for local authorities to listen and devolve decision making as close to the people as possible, so that they secure the best possible outcome that reflects the views of local residents?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. If we want to place-make, and if local authorities are in the position to regenerate a town, it is absolutely crucial that they listen to what the local people and the town council want. In that way, we can make sure that when we are in a position to place-make and the local authority is being issued with Government funds, it will deliver on what local people want in the location where local people want to see it.

We are unfortunate because Bradford Council is fixated on ensuring that the green space is built on, no matter what. It has adopted the position that this is the only place in the whole of the centre of Keighley in which a new health and wellbeing hub can be located. That is despite the fact that Keighley has many other brownfield site options and many other empty buildings and vacant premises in the centre of our town, all of which, over many years—even prior to the existence of the towns fund—the Council has failed to properly explore. It has failed to carry out site analysis of other sites or openly consider other site options.

I very much want to see a new health and wellbeing hub built in Keighley. We need one, but we should not be railroaded into a corner and told by Bradford Council that building on the green space is the only option. This, in my mind, is a result of the council’s lack of preparation, lack of due diligence and lack of consideration of other sites for many years. This should not be an either/or choice. In Keighley, we should be able to have a new health and wellbeing hub and keep the green space on North Street green. In fact, it is surely far more beneficial for the health and wellbeing of Keighley to have both.

Local authorities have an important role in regeneration. If they function properly, with due thought and consideration for a town, they can have a real place in making sure that we develop and regenerate a town in the appropriate manner. They can help communities to grow and thrive, and they can deliver on the community’s priorities. But this involves listening to what the community wants, and I come back to the point that I made earlier. My issue is not with the identified need for a new health and wellbeing hub at all; it is simply about the location. Unfortunately, in this case, Bradford Council has failed properly to engage with Keighley. It has failed to consider just how much this green space—this unique space in the centre of Keighley—matters to the people of the town. The council’s lack of inquisitiveness, preparation and ability to engage with our community and listen to its voice is detrimental to the process of proper place-making.

This has not been without trying. Local campaigners such as Laura Kelly and our former Keighley town mayor, Councillor Julie Adams, have tried on many occasions to tell Bradford Council that residents in Keighley would like the green space to stay green. Likewise, the Keighley Central ward District Councillor Mohammad Nazam and Keighley West ward District Councillor Julie Glentworth, as well as Worth Valley Councillors Rebecca Poulsen, Chris Herd and Russell Brown, have tried to get Bradford Council to listen and to make their voices heard in Bradford’s City Hall, but no one in Bradford’s running administration would listen.

I have to say that Labour-run Bradford Council’s approach to debate on the green space has been shameful. All its Labour councillors in Keighley are failing to listen on this issue. Let us be clear: Labour is determined to build on this green space, no matter what. When the council’s political executive gathered to discuss building on the green space just over a month ago, Keighley town councillor and local campaigner Councillor Paul Cook turned up to a meeting at Bradford Council in good faith to put forward his views. He had a pre-registered slot to speak at the meeting, but he was silenced by the council and not given the time to speak properly on this matter. Place-making is about listening to what local communities want, not silencing them.

At the end of last month I, along with many other residents, attended a packed public meeting in Keighley’s civic centre. It was an opportunity kindly organised by Keighley Town Council to allow local people to raise their views. The mood of the room was strong and represented, I believe, the mood of the wider town, which is absolutely clear. We want to save our green space.

As a result, Keighley Town Council decided to hold a public vote on this very matter, triggered by Keighley resident Graham Mitchell. This public poll will take place in just 10 days’ time, and everyone in Keighley will have the chance to vote on Thursday 21 July between 4 pm and 9 pm. Everybody living in the town council parish area, which includes Riddlesden, East Morton, Beechcliffe, Utley, Ingrow, Long Lee and Thwaites Brow, Guard House, Braithwaite, Bracken Bank, Oakworth, Laycock and, of course, the wider Keighley area, will be able to vote in their regular polling station. Any constituent who is unsure of where this is can find out by searching or by calling Bradford Council’s election office.

This really matters because people in Keighley will be asked three questions on the ballot paper, and the choice for all is very clear. The first question is, “Do you want a new health and wellbeing hub?” As I have said, we need a new health and wellbeing hub in the centre of Keighley, and I am therefore urging everyone to say yes.

Secondly, residents will be asked, “Do you want a new health and wellbeing hub on the vacant land at the corner of North Street and Cavendish Street?” This is, of course, the green space. There are other places in the centre of Keighley, which should be explored, where a new health and wellbeing hub could be located. Of course, I want to keep the green space green, and I am therefore urging all residents to answer no.

Finally, residents will be asked, “Should the vacant land at the corner of North Street and Cavendish Street be considered as a public open space?” This is our chance—the people of Keighley’s chance—to send Bradford Council a clear message to save this green space for many generations to enjoy into the future. To keep it green, I am urging all to vote yes.

This is an important moment for our town. Developments like the one proposed by Bradford Council are irreversible. If we lose our green space, this unique space in the centre of town, we will never get it back. I reiterate my call for as many people as possible to get involved and make their views known. I am urging people to vote yes, no, yes in the referendum. We must ensure this green space is protected for the future generations of Keighley, like the children at St Anne’s Primary School, which is located next to the green space, who kindly wrote to me saying that they want the green space to be kept green. If it is destroyed now, there will be no turning back.

This is not an either/or choice. I want to see a new health and wellbeing hub and I want to protect our green space, to protect and enhance the soul of our town. In just 10 days’ time, the people of Keighley will have a clear choice, and I urge them all to get out and vote on Thursday 21 July, to let their voice be heard. Let us keep it green.

I do not know where to begin. It seems unfortunate that the Opposition Benches and the Benches behind me are not full to hear that tour de force of a speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore). I congratulate him on securing this debate but, my God, what a speech that was. Nobody could doubt that he is incredibly passionate about this cause and a strong campaigner on behalf of his constituents.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) for his somewhat surprising intervention, given the very specific nature of the debate. It shows just how far my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley is prepared to reach out in his campaign.

So I would like to start by saying that the Government share my hon. Friend’s concern about making sure that communities in all parts of the country have access to vibrant green spaces in which people can relax, exercise and engage with the natural environment. Everyone here will testify to how essential their local parks and open spaces—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Gareth Johnson.)

Everyone here will testify to how essential their local parks and open spaces were at the height of the covid pandemic—they certainly were for me. They remain essential to everyone’s physical and mental wellbeing, and our quality of life, too. I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot comment on specific cases, owing to the Secretary of State’s quasi-judicial role in the planning system. However, I can spend this time reassuring my hon. Friend on what we, as the Government, are doing to both discourage development on green spaces and encourage development elsewhere.

On open space, the national planning policy framework makes it crystal clear that access to high-quality open spaces and opportunities for sport and physical activity are important for the health and wellbeing of communities. On top of these benefits, they obviously add ecological value, making an important contribution to the green infrastructure of the community. That is especially pertinent when we talk about the legacy of COP26 and the need for housing and planning to play their part in helping us to tackle carbon emissions, improve air quality and win the race to net zero.

Planning policies should therefore be based on robust and up-to-date assessments of the need for open space, sport and recreation facilities. Plans should also make sure that councils are ready to seize opportunities for new provision of these spaces where they can. Finally, the framework is clear that open space should not be built on unless there is clear evidence that it is no longer required, or that equivalent or better provision is secured in a suitable location. Development is also permitted if it is for alternative sports and recreational provision, the benefits of which clearly outweigh the loss of the current or former use.

Similar to open space, local green space can have a positive effect on local communities and can be designated through local and neighbourhood plans, ensuring that green areas of particular importance are identified and protected. Designating land as local green space should be consistent with the local planning of sustainable development and should complement investment in sufficient homes, jobs and other essential services. These spaces must also be in reasonably close proximity to the community, be demonstrably special to a local community, and hold a particular significance—for example, because of their beauty, historic significance, recreational value or richness of wildlife. Policies for managing development within a local green space should be consistent with those for green belts, but I should add that this space may also be nominated by parishes and community organisations for listing as an asset of community value. What does that mean in practice? If somewhere is listed, the community will have an opportunity to bid for it if the owner wants to dispose of the land on the open market.

My hon. Friend will know that the Government strongly support the re-use of suitable brownfield land, especially to meet housing needs and to regenerate our high streets and town centres. That is one reason why we committed to making the most of brownfield land, in line with our policies in the NPPF. The framework sets out that planning policies and decisions should give substantial weight to the value of using brownfield land. To further support this brownfield-first approach, we have introduced a number of measures, including increasing housing need by 35% in our 20 most populated urban areas. We have also widened permitted development rules, making it easier for boarded-up shops and offices to be converted into new homes.

We have also mandated every local authority to publish a register of local brownfield land suitable for housing in their area. Although it is rightly for councils and their residents to plan where new homes should go, our plan is clear that local authorities must give substantial weight to the re-use of brownfield, and give it priority where practical and viable. In many cases, we encourage councils to consider building upwards, with higher densities in towns and cities. However, it goes without saying that brownfield sites vary greatly, and our default position is that local authorities are generally best placed to assess the suitability of each development.

Let me turn to green space and planning applications. As my hon. Friend will know, councils are required to undertake a formal period of public consultation prior to deciding on a planning application. Where relevant, considerations are raised by local residents, and they must obviously be taken into account by the local authority. Planning applications are determined in accordance with the development plan for the area, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Each application is judged on its own individual merit; and of course, if a proposed development infringes on local green space, residents will be able to object and make their views known, just as they would with any other planning application.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that all this underlines the need for the planning process to be more democratic and engaging. I am pleased to say that the reforms proposed in our Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will help us to do exactly that. Under the reforms that we have set out, communities will retain the right to make representations on planning applications and local authorities will have a duty to consult with their communities on plans. Crucially, the Bill includes measures to digitise the planning system and transform the way that people can see and engage with what is being built in their area, including provision for green and open spaces.

Through the Bill, existing powers that determine when pre-application engagement is required with communities will also be made permanent. That will ensure that the voice of the community continues to be heard loud and clear. Our changes will also increase opportunities for community involvement through street votes, neighbourhood plans and design codes, so that high-quality green design and development is brought forward in a way that works best for local people. But we are not just reforming the planning system to ensure adequate green spaces for local communities; we are also giving councils the real investment they need to increase local provision of parks, woodland and play areas. That is evidenced in our towns fund, which is providing more than £3.6 billion to support locally-led job-creating projects that support growth and build pride in place.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, £33.2 million of the towns fund has been committed via the Keighley town deal to invest in capital projects designed to improve connectivity both to Keighley and within the area, to improve land use in and around the town, and to make the best use of the area’s rich economic and cultural assets. I understand that the proposed £2.4 million of public realm improvements include improving public spaces, such as new squares and parks for residents to enjoy, along with upgrades to walking and cycling links, and the regeneration of Low Street with significant tree planting. I am confident that, complemented by the £4.9 million community grant scheme, Keighley will become an even more attractive place in which people can live, work and play. It is an exemplar of how the Government are supporting councils to level up and increase the provision of green spaces in their communities. We want to get more growth-spurring, life-improving projects such as this off the ground in the coming weeks and months.

I thank my hon. Friend once again for his amazing, passionate speech, and for securing this incredibly important debate. I hope that my remarks have gone at least some way towards reassuring him that the Government are committed to protecting our vital green spaces. We will continue to take a brownfield-first approach to development that protects our existing green spaces while ensuring that we build greener, more sustainable neighbourhoods for the benefit of all.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.