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Greenbelt: Local Plans

Volume 701: debated on Tuesday 19 October 2021

Before we begin the next debate, I again encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission, and to give each other and staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered inclusion of greenbelt land in local plans.

It is my absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I applied for this debate as a number of my constituents quite rightly have written and spoken to me over recent months with concerns about potential building on green belt, in particular in the ward of Carpenders Park. Although it is my understanding that as a Member of Parliament I am not allowed to interfere in the planning process, nor do I have any control over housing targets or a planning authority’s local plan, I would like to confirm that with the Minister today. I have several questions, and some context to those questions, as we go through, to see whether there is anything I can do as the Member of Parliament to ensure that green belt in Carpenders Park is not included in the local plan.

I would be grateful to the Minister if he could confirm that that is indeed the case. I must say I am deeply concerned by the inclusion of green belt in the local plan during the recent consultation process. As the MP for Watford, I am acutely aware of where we are situated: we are not in London, but we are inside the M25, and the ever-growing expansion of the capital over decades has rightly led to Government intervention to protect our local green spaces and our great town from being swallowed up in the metropolis.

My constituency covers two distinct local authorities, Watford Borough Council and Three Rivers District Council, and it is the latter that I will focus on today. Within Three Rivers we find Carpenders Park; I invite the Minister to visit at some point, and he will see it is a wonderful part of my constituency, with beautiful open green spaces. However, most at the heart of the community are the people. I have had the luxury of witnessing over the past two years how the community comes together and works together. In particular, in this instance I will illustrate that with the work the community has done to protect its green space in the face of the local plan inclusion.

I have had the opportunity to meet local residents, most recently in a community meeting organised by Councillors David Coltman, Donna Duncan and Shanti Maru and others, where I was able to speak to them about their concerns about the green belt and the local plan consultation. In addition, I went to a meeting with a campaign group set up in response to the local plan consultation, which included Rue Grewel, Terry Voss, Ketul Patel, Lester Wagman, Ross King and Jack Eliades, and Pandora Melly, who was unfortunately unable to attend on that night.

Since then, Rue, Terry and Lester have set up their own campaign group, which is called “Can’t Replace Green Space”. I do not think anyone could get more on the nose than that statement. Going out through old-fashioned engagement they have knocked on doors, spoken to people, helped them to fill out the consultations and done an enormous amount of work to encourage local residents to respond to the local consultation.

We have seen an incredible response, with thousands on thousands of signatures of people saying, quite rightly, that they do not want that patch of their area to be built on with housing. I should note that this is not about nimbyism; the campaigners have incredibly powerful reasons why the area should not be included. There are potential brownfield sites that could be built on in other areas, so looking at this area is not a last resort.

In my efforts to understand whether I as a local Member of Parliament can do anything to stop the inclusion, I have spent many hours researching local planning rules extensively—more than I am expected to understand as an MP. I hope Members will bear with me as I share these points. As I understand it—I would appreciate confirmation of this—the national planning policy framework provides the framework against which local planning authorities draw up their local plans and determine applications for planning permission. Chapter 13 of the framework, the NPPF, deals specifically with protecting green-belt land and it states clearly that established green-belt boundaries should be changed only

“where exceptional circumstances are fully evidenced and justified”.

The NPPF is also clear that inappropriate development that is harmful to the green belt should also only be approved “in very special circumstances”.

Paragraph 141 states:

“Before concluding that exceptional circumstances exist to justify changes to Green Belt boundaries, the…authority should be able to demonstrate that it has examined fully all other reasonable options for meeting its identified need for development.”

I fully understand residents’ concerns that Three Rivers has not yet been able to demonstrate that in its local plan consultation. Paragraph 149 also lists exceptions where building on the green belt will not be considered inappropriate.

Since being elected I have raised multiple times in private meetings with the former Secretary of State and the current Housing Minister my concerns about over-development across Watford in general, particularly about tall towers, but given that this debate is about the green belt I will not cover those right now. In the Chamber a few months ago I asked whether it is the case that housing target needs are not set in stone and that they are a starting point for negotiation. Will the Minister confirm whether that is still the case, and that a planning inspector can accept a lower housing need target for the green belt to be protected if a local plan sets out clear criteria and presents a credible and reasonable alternative? I have seen articles recently in my local area saying that no local authority can challenge the housing need set by the standard method for assessing housing need. However, if the local plan is the starting point for determining the planning process, it would be most appropriate to use that as a mechanism to challenge the standard method in order to protect our precious green belt. It is possible, in my view.

Indeed, House of Commons Library research has concluded that the inspector can challenge local authorities on their desire to build on green-belt land, where they fail to challenge the housing need in the local plan. I found many examples, but these two come to mind. In Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, where 77% of the borough is found within the South Yorkshire green belt—similar to Three Rivers, where 76% of the district is classified as green belt—the planning inspector found that exceptional circumstances did not exist to justify altering the green-belt boundary, which highlights the importance of local authorities considering adjusting the boundary only as a last resort. That was also the case for Rugby Borough Council, where the inspector found that green-belt expansion would

“breach the existing strong, clearly defined boundary which would cause significant harm to the purpose of the Green Belt in this location.”

At this point I want to clarify that I am not attempting to do point-scoring politics. This is not about me trying to challenge the council to be difficult—to do political point scoring or get into a blame game. I want to be supportive and for the debate to help support it as regards removing the green belt from Carpenders Park. I want to highlight that this issue is about local people having a say in their local area, and through the process of consultation making sure that their voices are heard. I hope today’s debate will enable that even further.

I have also raised the challenge that engagement for the local plan absolutely has to come from people putting in petitions as well as individual comments. One thing that I have found—I do not know whether it is a Government or a local policy, so perhaps we will get clarity—is that thousands of people sign a petition, but that is accepted only as a single entry in a consultation, rather than as representing the thousands of signatories.

I have chatted with Alex Hayward, the leader of the Conservatives—not currently in control—on Three Rivers District Council. She confirmed that she would remove the area of green belt from the plan, so there is not a lack of political will to do so. Something that has been covered so much in the mainstream press and locally, which I will not going into detail on, is the charge that the Government are inflicting national targets on local areas, causing the green belt to be at risk. Until recently I could see that argument. In their manifesto, the Conservatives had a target of 300,000 new homes; I believe Labour had 1 million over the Parliament and the Liberal Democrats had a target of 300,000. However, I am led to believe that at the recent Lib Dem conference they voted to increase the national housebuilding target to 380,000 a year. I doubt that that political argument holds weight any more, given the fact that the parties have all increased the house building target. I do not want to get into that political battle, other than to say it is important that local residents are heard, irrespective of the national politicking that goes on.

Could the Minister confirm that the planning White Paper is just that—a White Paper? There are press reports that a Bill is passing through Parliament, with various announcements, leaflets and press coverage about what that Bill includes. Actually, nothing has gone through Parliament yet. Anything talking about the planning Bill is not factual, and the White Paper is just the White Paper. Therefore, it is not yet in the public realm what that might include. I would be grateful if the Minister could set out the reasons why the 2014-based household projections continue to be used seven years later to determine housing need according to the standard method, and whether that is likely to change? Residents have raised that issue with me.

Above all, I am keen to stand up for residents in my constituency and for our green spaces. I cannot state enough how important it is to ensure that Carpenders Park remains the beautiful place and community that it is today. I want to make sure that continues for many decades to come. I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak about this incredibly important issue. The residents of Carpenders Park deserve to have their voices heard. As their MP, I have been led to believe that I cannot be involved in the planning process; however, if I am able to be, I would like the Minister to let me know. If I cannot be, I would like to do anything else I can do to help local residents. I would like answers to their valid concerns, so I can ensure that Carpenders Park continues to be the beautiful place and community that it is. I thank the Minister for his time and I look forward to any further guidance on how we can protect our local green space in Watford.

It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. It is also my particular pleasure to be able to address hon. Members as the representative of the new Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Levelling up is about empowering local leaders and communities and creating nice places to live, both of which are highly relevant to this debate.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell) for securing this important debate. His constituency, as he said, includes areas governed by two local authorities—Watford and Three Rivers. His constituents are hugely fortunate to have my hon. Friend as their MP. He is a relentless, articulate and learned champion for them, particularly on this issue. He asked me to confirm that he cannot interfere in the planning process. He cannot control the numbers the local authority chooses to go for—I am happy to confirm he is correct on that.

Let me reiterate the Government’s absolutely unwavering commitment to protecting the green belt. There has been no greater advocate for the green belt and for our valued countryside than the Prime Minister. He could not have been clearer in his address to the party conference two weeks ago. Homes should not be built on green fields if we can possibly help it. Instead, we should focus on boosting construction on brownfield sites. I will talk about both of those today.

I am naturally very sympathetic to the concerns of local residents, but hon. Members will appreciate that the Secretary of State has a quasi-judicial role in the planning system, so I cannot comment on individual planning proposals. While the Government set national planning policy in England, local authorities are responsible for local planning matters, including the distribution and density of development across their areas, the designation of land as green belt and co-operation with neighbouring authorities on matters that cross boundaries. Local plans are the key documents through which local planning authorities can set out a vision and a framework for the future development of their area but, crucially, planning must be carried out in democratic consultation with local residents so that everyone can have their say. The community’s voice must be heard. My hon. Friend talked about the central importance of consultation and democracy in his speech and the good work being done by some of the groups in his constituency. I am sorry to hear that he feels that in his constituency there has been a tremendous democratic failure on the part of the council to listen and act on residents’ concerns. He mentioned a couple of particular sites where that was the case.

On the green belt, as my hon. Friend knows, the manifesto on which the Government were elected was unequivocal in its commitment not just to protecting the greenbelt and the countryside, but to enhancing it for future generations. The green belt is vital in preventing urban sprawl and stopping encroachment on our beautiful countryside. That is why national planning policy delivers strict protections for the green belt, along with strong safeguards against boundary changes and development.

Councils must meet two clear tests to make any changes. The first test outlined in the national planning policy framework ensures that local authorities are prevented from changing a green-belt boundary other than in exceptional circumstances. They must show that every other reasonable option has been exhausted, and that includes using brownfield land, optimising the density of development and discussing whether neighbouring authorities can take some of the development. In addition, local authorities must consult local people before submitting a revised plan for examination by an inspector. If a local authority finds that it really cannot avoid removing land from the green belt, it is expected to offset the loss of that land through environmental and access improvements to the remaining green belt.

The second test sets out that, where there is a green belt, local authorities should regard the construction of most types of new building in that green belt as inappropriate. They should be refused planning permission unless there are very special circumstances. Let me use this opportunity to reassure hon. Friends and Members that we will continue to afford maximum protection to our green belt. We stand squarely behind that commitment as we take forward our important agenda to level up the country. It is important to stress that national policy sets the expectation that local planning policies and decisions should enhance as well as protect green-belt land. Most of the green belt is countryside, often containing valuable biodiversity soils and attractive landscapes.

As the Prime Minister has made clear, we must reduce pressure on green fields by focusing on delivering beautiful homes on brownfield land, particularly in urban areas. The national planning policy framework strongly encourages regeneration and the reuse of brownfield sites, especially for development to meet housing need and to regenerate our high streets and town centres, as we all want. Local plans should support opportunities to remediate contaminated land or identify underused sites as the first priority—and we were the first Government to require councils to make registers of all their brownfield land.

Of course, brownfield does not just mean derelict plots; they are obvious brownfield. We have already widened permitted development rules, allowing extensions, adaptations and even demolition of unwanted commercial buildings such as boarded-up shops and warehouses, which are natural candidates for new homes. The framework also makes it clear that by achieving the right density of development, a neighbourhood can ensure that urban land is used efficiently. Minimum density standards, in a sort of gentle densification—not tall towers—encouraged by the new national design code guidance, will help to save brownfield land. There is a big difference between gentle density and tall towers, and I highlight to any council the pioneering work of Create Streets on the subject.

We recognise that brownfield sites are harder to deliver, and in some circumstances councils require additional support to maximise their use, so we are helping to fund regeneration, as well as favouring it through legislation and guidance. Only last week, we allocated £58 million to 53 councils through our brownfield land release fund, and that funding will boost local areas by transforming unloved and disused sites into vibrant communities for people to live and work in. With the demolition of unsightly derelict buildings and disused car parks and garages, that is levelling up in action and a clear example of our restoring local pride in place while building the homes this country needs. Crucially, this funding will help to protect the countryside and green spaces. We expect another 5,600 homes to be built on those brownfield sites, supporting young people and families across the country into home ownership.

That is just the latest instalment. Government have made significant investment to unlock brownfield sites—for example, the £4.35-billion housing infrastructure fund, the £4.95-billion home building fund, the £400 million brownfield housing fund and the £75- million brownfield land release fund. Furthermore, through land remediation relief, the Government provide a deduction of 100% from corporation tax, plus 50% for any qualifying expenditure incurred by companies as a clean-up of contaminated land acquired from third parties. No Government have ever invested in brownfield-first regeneration such as this. I hope the councils in my hon. Friend’s constituency will avail themselves of all this help to do brownfield first.

In 2018, we introduced a new standard method in the national planning policy framework for assessing local housing need. My hon. Friend referred to that in his speech. It helps communities to gain a clear understanding of the minimum number of new homes required to inform local plans. I must be clear, however, that the local housing need calculation is by no means a top-down imposed housing target, nor does the method dictate where the new homes go. It is just a starting point when measuring an area’s housing need. A local authority still has to set its own housing target, after taking account of local constraints, including, of course, the green belt, and plan for the right mix of housing type and tenure and in the right places.

My hon. Friend asked me to confirm, as I can, that the use of the standard method in plan making is not mandatory. If it is felt that circumstances warrant an alternative approach to using the standard method, a local authority can put it forward for examination as part of its local plan, although that comes with the caveat that it will be scrutinised closely. Last year, we improved the standard method further, which resulted in an uplifting of the previous figure by 35% in our 20 most populated urban areas, a further move to support a brownfield-first, regeneration-led approach to development.

That enables us to plan for enough homes in a way that maximises the use of existing infrastructure and supports development that is close to shops, schools, local services and good transport connections, and reduces the need for long journeys by car. It will also help drive the regeneration of our high streets, while levelling up our town and city centres across the country.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue today. To raise our sights a bit, the main purpose of the green belt is to ensure that our towns and cities grow in a sustainable way. In the lead-up to the UN climate change conference—COP26—the enormous potential of the green belt and other greenfield land is very visible, helping to support climate change resilience, as part of our green infrastructure, and as an aid to help the natural world to grow and recover. That makes it all the more important for communities to be able to engage with the planning process, making full use of the new digital tools available, to ensure that councillors and planning authorities make the right decisions when they come to balance homes and jobs with protecting our precious countryside for future generations to come.

Question put and agreed to.