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Green Belt (Protection) Bill

Volume 738: debated on Friday 20 October 2023

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Let me explain briefly, for those who may have been expecting debates on the other Bills, that unfortunately today’s proceedings will finish at 2.30 pm, and it is not possible to debate all these worthy subjects on the Order Paper. However, the quality of the debates we have had today shows that the Leader of the House was mistaken in seeking, at one stage, to change the rules and, in effect, exclude debate on most of the subjects we have been able to enjoy today.

This is the last Bill I have down on today’s Order Paper and it deals with a subject that has been close to my heart ever since I was privileged to be a Minister in the Department of the Environment, as it then was, and we were celebrating one of the great anniversaries of the green belt. It was brought home to me how important the green belt is, not just for being green—it is not always green—but for preventing ribbon development across our country. If one travels out of London, as I will later today when going to my constituency by car, one will be able to travel through many miles of relatively green fields and countryside, which is there only because of the green belt. It has been protected over the years against ribbon development. If we contrast what it is like when one goes out of London with what it is like going out of Bangkok, Delhi, Cairo or a lot of other foreign cities, one can see that we have been able to create for our country a much better environment by having green belts around the big conurbations, including that of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole. So we want to ensure that we do not erode the green belt.

One of my concerns is that all the talk about the need to erode the green belt is producing dire consequences, because people who own land in the green belt think they are going to be able to sell it for a fast buck at some future stage and may already be negotiating options on it. As the Government no longer seem to be committed to ensuring that the green belt remains sacrosanct, we see things happening in areas such as Dudsbury golf course in my constituency. A fortnight ago, the golf club was told that the golf course is no longer going to be available after next April, apparently because a company called Wyatt Homes has bought it. The company has no planning permission to build on it—it is bang in the middle of the green belt—but it obviously thinks that at some stage in the future if they get rid of the golf course and allow the land to deteriorate, it may be able to get its dream of a massive housing development on that land.

I spend much of my time trying to stop Bradford Council concreting over the green belt in my constituency. It seems to want to build more and more unaffordable houses on the green belt, and I want it to build more and more affordable houses on brownfield sites in Bradford. Was my hon. Friend, like me, concerned that the Leader of the Opposition recently suggested at his conference that, were he to become Prime Minister, there should be much more building on the green belt and he would want to overrule local objection to that?

I think that what the Leader of the Opposition was proposing is a complete nightmare. It will destroy at a stroke all that land, which, as I have said, is protecting the environment of people who live in cities. Why should people who live in cities and towns be prevented from being able to venture outside them to enjoy open air and countryside?

Although we have no green belt in Leicestershire, the most loved piece of green open space in the county is the green wedge north of Coalville, which separates Coalville from the villages of Swannington, Thringstone, Coleorton and Whitwick. Will the hon. Gentleman’s Bill protect those spaces as well?

It is called the Green Belt (Protection) Bill, so I am not sure that protecting areas outside of the green belt will come into its scope, to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question directly. Would I in spirit support protecting the sorts of spaces he describes? The answer is very much that I would. The essence of this Bill is just to concentrate on those areas of the country that already have green belt that is subject to pressure from some parts of my own party—and particularly now, it seems, from the Opposition—to have it de-designated. That is why clause 2 states:

“No local authority in England shall de-designate any land…unless…it has ensured that alternative land within its local authority area has been designated as Green Belt land in substitution for the land to be designated”.

That would remove any incentive for local authorities to grant planning permission on one piece of green-belt land, because they would know that they would have to replace it with another bit of green-belt land. That is why this is such an important Bill.

Going back to the point on taking away local concerns and local opposition, which the Opposition want to do, the green belt is cherished by the public. To take away the voice of the public should surely be concerning. If the Opposition will take away the voice of the public from something like this, what else will they be taking it away from?

In essence, my right hon. Friend is right. This is an issue of local democracy, and it should be for local people to decide the quality of the environment in which they live, but there should also be some national rules. The green-belt policy was originally for the metropolitan green belt, because on a cross-party basis people thought, “We can’t allow our towns and cities to expand exponentially without any control.” There was always an argument for saying, “The next field in the countryside is one on which we should build to deal with the housing crisis.” Why not build some more new settlements?

I know that time is against us, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. One of the flaws in his Bill, as I see it, is the proposal to allow local authorities to de-list green belt so long as they substitute it with something else. Is the danger of that not that we devalue the green belt and, in effect, local councils give up plum green-belt sites and replace them with land that is not what most people would consider green-belt land, therefore devaluing the whole essence of the green belt and making it easier for future politicians to come along and concrete over that too?

My hon. Friend is right, but the problem is that local authorities already can de-list green-belt land and, indeed, are encouraged by the Government to do so. It is because of that reality that I thought, “Let us try to introduce a deterrent against that de-listing.” The Government go around saying, “You won’t be able to build on the green belt, but you can apply for that piece of land to no longer be designated as green belt,” thereby avoiding the protection that this House decided to give when it introduced the green-belt legislation. That erosion is already taking place, but the Bill is designed to try to limit the effects of that.

I take my hon. Friend’s point, however, that for years and years people sitting on green-belt land, perhaps with a big offer from a building firm to give them large sums of money if they get planning permission, have thought, “Let us put pigs on the land, or allow Travellers or squatters to get on the land” so that in the end people say, “It would be much better to build on it than have to put up with these ghastly antisocial activities that are already on there.” That has been the strategy by many people who own green-belt land to try to persuade people that it is a good idea to get rid of it. Green-belt land does not have to be green; it has to be land that is undeveloped and is a breathing space for people who are otherwise confined to living in our towns and cities.

I am not expecting the Government to approve the Bill, because they have already said that they are against it—indeed, throughout this Session they have objected to this and all my other Bills—but that does not mean that we should give up. We have to keep on trying to protect that which is worth protecting. For the reasons that I have set out, I believe that it is worth protecting the green belt, as I think do most people in the country. They should be reminded when they visit London that it would not be such a green and pleasant land outside it but for the green belt.

The Deputy Speaker interrupted the business (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 27 October.