Green Belt (Broxtowe): 13th July 2012

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
May I begin by saying that I very much hope that this place changes its procedures so that one person cannot thwart a measure on which there is so much cross-party agreement?

I am grateful to have secured this debate. In my maiden speech, I referred to the green belt in my constituency. We do not have a great deal of it, as it has been developed over the years. As a result, the only land now available for development in Broxtowe is either brownfield or green-belt land; we have no greenfield land at all. We are the most densely populated borough in Nottinghamshire, and one of the most densely populated in the east midlands.

In my maiden speech, I referred to the threat to the green belt from development and from open-cast mining. I anticipated that there might be an application by UK Coal. I wish my prediction had been false, but, unfortunately, UK Coal has now made an application for an open-cast mine. I shall briefly address that issue at the end of my speech.

The real threat to the green-belt land in my constituency comes from development, however, and most notably from the borough council’s aligned core strategy document, which is currently out for public consultation. I know the Minister will be interested to hear my observations, which are supported by many of my constituents. We have had many public meetings, some called by me and others by Broxtowe residents. There is absolute agreement about the form that accompanies the so-called public consultation. I believe it is a form that we inherited, so I am not casting aspersions on my own Government alone; this form is a fault of all. It must be almost impossible for anybody to fill in the form with confidence unless they are either an agent or an extremely experienced clerk to one of our brilliant town or parish councils. I urge the Government to look at such forms and the notes that accompany them. When we ask for a public consultation, please can we make sure that ordinary people can fill in the forms that are provided, so that they can truly make their voices heard?

This aligned core strategy document that is out for public consultation in Broxtowe utterly contradicts the national planning policy framework, in which the Government have set out what I believe is an excellent policy on the green belt, and which stresses the need to protect it. I secured a 90-minute debate on green-belt land in Westminster Hall. I will not rehearse the history of the green belt and the reasons it is so special. It was introduced specifically to prevent urban sprawl, so that our communities kept their own identity and there was not coalescence.

In a letter to me dated 22 June, the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), succinctly explains the following:

“The Government attaches great importance to the Green Belt. Our new National Planning Policy Framework provides strong protection to the Green Belt, and explains that only in exceptional circumstances should a Green Belt boundary be amended.​

The Framework not only reaffirms policy on the permanence of Green Belt and the need to protect it from inappropriate development, it also makes clear that policies protecting Green Belt are not overridden by the presumption in favour of sustainable development. The presumption should work through, not against, the Local Plan, and of course it is in Local Plans that Green Belt is designated.”

People throughout Broxtowe know that their green-belt land is seriously under threat within the borough because of this document produced by the borough councils and the other councils that form the Greater Nottingham joint planning advisory board—again those are not exactly words that trip off the tongue and are easily identified by ordinary people.

At its heart, the document is about setting a housing target that would mean that some 6,150 houses would be built within Broxtowe. The problem, as I have explained, is that we have only green-belt and brownfield land. We know that we have enough brownfield land for between 3,000 and 3,500 houses, which means that the remaining 2,000-plus houses would have to built on our green-belt land. My campaign began in 2008-09, before I came to this place, and when I have criticised the acceptance of this housing target, as I did recently, I have been accused of many things. I have been accused of telling lies and of scaremongering. I have been told that I am talking rubbish. I have actually been told that I should not poke my nose into these things because I do not know what I am talking about. I believe that I have some understanding of the consequences of what is in this document, but in any event it is absolutely my duty as the local Member of Parliament to come to this place on behalf of the people I represent and say what their view is. It is my duty to represent their views, not just here, but in my work in the constituency, in opposition to that target, because I believe firmly and fundamentally that the Government’s policy of protecting our green belt from development is absolutely right.

I know that the Labour party also takes the view that green-belt land should be properly protected and should not be developed, except in exceptional circumstances. I have asked the Minister for an explanation and an understanding of what “exceptional circumstances” or “very special circumstances” might amount to. My fear is that if a housing target is deemed to have been set and to be both legally compliant and sound, that will override Government policy. With great respect to the Government, may I say that that is going to put us in a very difficult position? If we do not resolve this, the fine words of Ministers across the board and up to the Prime Minister, who has talked about how special green-belt land is and why it must be specially protected, and the fine words in the national planning policy framework will all ring hollow. Those words will also be hollow if councils such as Broxtowe’s are allowed to establish a figure that they cannot meet without building thousands of homes on green-belt land.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con)
Is it not the case that, unfortunately, because of some of the earlier campaigns about the NPPF, some developers and councils keen to have housing—no bad thing in itself—are blaming the Government by saying, “The Government are allowing us to build all over the place”? That is not the message of the NPPF, which respects the environment. I think that my hon. Friend is making a powerful case on behalf of her constituency and her constituents.

Anna Soubry
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her observations, but the difficulty is that it matters not what Ministers say—although they are important words, of course—unless we resolve the contradictions with the NPPF. Organisations such as the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England have accepted that it protects our green open spaces, but it will count for nothing unless we resolve the conflict between what is said here and what is happening out in the real world.

Last night, I went to a meeting in Greasley that had been organised not by me—to those who say I am stirring up trouble, I say that I did not organise it—but by a gentleman by the name of Neil Hutchinson. I walked into a parish hall, which was packed. People were almost having difficulty getting in, such was the strength of feeling and the opposition to the council’s plans. It has set the target and has not got the land to fulfil what it says is the need.

I want to make it very clear that Broxtowe has formed a board with Nottingham city, Erewash, Rushcliffe—although it withdrew from the process and has set its own housing target—Gedling and parts of Ashfield covering the parts of the county to the north. They have taken up the target together. The overall target was initially established by the old regional spatial strategies, which I know the Government are trying to abolish, but those councils have supposedly looked at the housing need for the whole of Greater Nottingham, and that is the problem. Broxtowe has not looked at its own housing need and neither has it worked with its local communities. Neighbourhood plans have been mentioned only in the past two or three months. They had been ignored, despite my protestations, until recently, so we have not had all the great things that the Government want to do to bring communities together to determine their neighbourhood plans.

The first site proposed in the document is a green-belt site at Stapleford. Again, I went to a public meeting in a pub that, again, was standing room only. People were cross and angry. That meeting had been arranged by a couple of local people and I should give full credit to them—they are a woman called Jennie Phillips and a man called Richard McRae. He has delivered hundreds, indeed thousands, of leaflets to bring people together to have their say. People are angry that the first site that has been proposed is a piece of green-belt land.

We then move to other communities in my constituency, such as Greasley, which has been lumped into Eastwood and told that 1,400 houses will built in that area. None of the sites has been identified, however. Equally, we find that Kimberley now encompasses Watnall and Nuthall. Again, the figure that has been given is 600 but none of the sites has been identified. We know that there are green-belt sites there and our fear is that they are all now liable to be developed. We know that because we know what happened to Toton, which has a large piece of green-belt land that stops the sort of coalescence between communities that green-belt land was designed to prevent. At Toton, a green belt site had been proposed by the council as a preferred site and when the people rose up in anger, it was taken off the list. It has been made vulnerable, however, and we know that because we anticipate that a planning application will be made some time next month for 800 houses. So, green-belt land is being proposed before even brownfield sites.

Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con)
My hon. Friend is a famous champion of the green belt in Broxtowe and is speaking knowledgeably and passionately. She is making a local point and, through that, highlighting a national issue. Does she agree that local people up and down the country are worried and anxious about how to protect their green belt?

Anna Soubry
Absolutely. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point because the danger when we have such debates about our constituencies is that people could say it was all about Broxtowe. Of course I champion my constituency, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his generous comments in that regard, but the question has huge implications, as identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). Unless we ensure that there is no conflict between our stated policy of protecting our green belt and what is happening in the real world, all those fine words will ring hollow.

People will say, “Why is this being done? Why is the borough council—and the Lib Dems and Labour, who control it—doing this in the face of so much opposition?” The borough council talks about need; I have addressed the fact that it has looked at the housing market in the whole of Greater Nottingham, but now it seems that the planning inspectors, who are, at the end of the day, Government inspectors, are being blamed. In a letter, Councillor Steve Barber, the chair of the Greater Nottingham Joint Planning Advisory Board and a Broxtowe councillor, says:

“Our consultants and experts came up with a much higher housing figure”.

He does not actually say which figure it is higher than, but that does not matter; what matters is what follows:

“and the inspector indicated to us that in the absence of striking new evidence, he will not accept any lower than this.”

“This” is the overall figure given for Greater Nottingham, which councils have literally divvied up among themselves. I have looked at various minutes—I have some here—to see where the inspector has said that he wants “striking new evidence” before he will accept any lower figure, and I cannot find that comment. I have asked for evidence of that statement, and it is yet to be forthcoming.

My real message to the Minister is this. I do not know whether he is able to contact Keith Holland, the planning inspector, who I know is a very senior inspector, but it strikes me that what is needed is for the Minister to write to him, or arrange a meeting with him, so that I or perhaps others can discuss directly with the inspector what is happening in Broxtowe, and how Broxtowe can offer a figure that in some way matches up to the availability of non-green-belt land, so that we do not find ourselves in a position where so much of our green belt is under threat from development.

I also ask the Minister to give good, firm guidance to all inspectors throughout the country—this is the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones)—to ensure that full, proper advice is given to our inspectors in their work with local authorities, so that local authorities are not putting in danger our green belt and flying in the face of our national planning policy framework document, and the words and policy of this Government—a policy of protecting our green belt.​

As ever, the clock is against me. I quickly want to say that the other threat to the green belt in Broxtowe is from an application from UK Coal that the county council will consider in September. The public consultation is completed. The application would allow, at a 325-acre site in a place called Shortwood, between Cossall and Trowell, the extraction of 1.5 million tonnes of coal and fireclay, which—if you can believe it, in this day and age, Mr Deputy Speaker—would be put into heavy goods vehicles, at a rate of some eight movements an hour. Those vehicles would go all the way along congested roads to the M1, and then to a coal-fired power station and back. I am reliably informed that it would take that power station about four months to burn that coal, which it would take more than five years to extract; it would take another year to restore the area. One wonders whether, in this day and age, that is worth it. In my judgment, that is certainly not right.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker for allowing me the time I have taken to speak. I look forward, as ever, to the Minister’s contribution.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on securing this debate, and on the typically thoughtful way in which she made the case on behalf of her constituents. I understand the concern that she, her constituents and many other people have about potential threats, general or specific, to the green belt. Like me, my hon. Friend is a lawyer, and she will know that in planning matters, there is a legal process that is gone through, both in the plan-making process and in the consideration of individual applications. Planning authorities, the Planning Inspectorate—although it acts in the Secretary of State’s name, it has operational independence—Ministers and the Secretary of State, who has a role, potentially, in appeals processes, all play a part in that quasi-judicial process, so propriety means that we are not in a position to comment on individual applications; I know that she will understand that. The plan-making process has to go through a specific set of legal processes and tests; that is the important thing to bear in mind.

My hon. Friend raises a concern which was made worse by the previous Government’s policy of regional spatial strategies, which were seen as a top-down removal of green belt. Across the country there were some 30 instances where regional strategies proposed to remove land from green-belt protection. The Government have made clear their intention to remove those regional strategies, although we must act lawfully and give consideration to the environmental impact doing so. That is the legal process that we have to go through. The House made clear its view by voting in the Localism Act 2011 to remove the legal basis for any future regional strategies.

The core strategy, which has become known as the local plan under our new system, can be a single document for one authority or can, as in this case, be a joint document for a number of authorities. The strategy has to go through a process whereby, having been consulted on, it is submitted to the inspectorate for examination and to be tested as to whether it is sound. That is the important legal test to bear in mind, and it includes the ​opportunity for an examination in public in which not only must the council defend its proposals, but there is the opportunity for my hon. Friend, her constituents or other interested persons with a legitimate nexus who appear before the examination in public to make their case that what is proposed is not sound. I cannot prejudge that, and neither can the inspectorate.

With reference to some of the comments that might have been made or are purported to have been made to my hon. Friend, I can assure her that the Broxtowe plan has not yet been submitted to the planning inspectorate for examination. Although there may well have been some correspondence about preliminaries, no inspector is considering proposals yet. I want to emphasise that. When they are considered, the inspector will have to consider whether the proposals in the plan—the core strategy—are sound, in the sense that they are consistent with national planning policy, and whether they are based on sound and robust evidence.

In relation to green-belt matters, national policy is clearly set out in the national planning policy framework. That commits strongly to protecting the green belt. It says that inappropriate development is by definition harmful to the green belt and should not be approved, except in very special circumstances. It sets out, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, that existing green-belt boundaries should be altered only in exceptional circumstances through the local plan process, which involves public consultation and a public examination by an independent inspector. As I understand it, the proposal that Broxtowe puts forward will purport to amend green-belt boundaries. It will have to be considered against that test.

The relevance of the regional spatial strategy in this case is that there are housing numbers that the council seeks to rely on. The council, like any local authority, is entitled to do that. Now that we have abolished the top-down system that we inherited, I cannot recreate a top-down system which says what my hon. Friend cannot rely on, any more than what she should rely on. Those have to be tested and found to be reliable. I am sure my hon. Friend and those who share her concerns will want to use the process to make sure that that testing takes place. That will be for the inspector, not for me, to decide.

In that context, while the regional strategies remain part of the present development plan prior to their abolition, the fact that they are proposed to be abolished is a matter which the inspector can take into account, as the council could have done. The weight given to the proposed abolition of those strategies and the numbers that go with them is again a matter which can be taken into account and could have been taken into account by the council when drawing up its proposals. It chose not to do so. The inspector will have to be the judge of that.

I understand that the east midland strategy was published in 2009, so the housing figures are pre-2009. It will be for the inspector in a public inquiry to look at the most up-to-date and reliable evidence put forward, so I will be careful about not prejudging that, but my hon. Friend will understand that where the issues properly arise that might be a matter for debate.

Within the process there are proper routes to challenge what is perceived to be a needless or inappropriate removal of land from the green belt if it is not based on evidence that meets robustly the very special circumstances ​test. My hon. Friend and her constituents might want to consider that as their way forward, but I cannot say more than that. That is the process. The Government cannot interfere and would not seek to do so, for reasons I know she will understand. Equally, because it is a joint strategy, where green-belt land straddles local boundaries, as housing markets can, local authorities of course must demonstrate to the inspector that they have actively met the duty to co-operate, which is also part of the NPPF.

Anna Soubry
I understand what the Minister is saying, but does that mean that a local authority such as Broxtowe borough council is duty bound to be part of a much larger housing market, because at one time this crossed into five councils? Is that what co-operation is about, or is it not about one council saying to another, “Well, we’ve got a bit here. What have you got? How can we perhaps take some of our need and you could soak it up?” Are they duty bound to be part of a very large single housing market, or should they be setting their own needs and their own target?

Robert Neill
No local authority is duty bound to follow a particular model for dealing with the duty to co-operate, which is why it is deliberately not defined in the NPPF. What amounts to genuine co-operation will vary from case to case and will depend on each authority’s circumstances, so it will be assessed by the inspector and the decision based upon the evidence put before him or her. In the same way, it is perfectly possible for local authorities to choose to collaborate if they so wish. As I understand the history my hon. Friend has related, one local authority has chosen to leave the joint strategy, which is its right, just as it is the right of another authority to stay in. That is their call; it is not for the Secretary of State to prescribe one way or the other. Similarly, the NPPF does not seek deliberately ​to define the very special circumstances because that issue has to be assessed by the inspector on the evidence base and then applied to the national policy.

I note that, now that the NPPF is in place, only today there have come to my attention two decisions—they are not green-belt issues, but the general approach adopted is significant—in which the planning inspectors have specifically said that they gave great weight to the NPPF, so these things are taken on board by the Planning Inspectorate. The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), meets from time to time with Sir Michael Pitt, the chairman of the Planning Inspectorate, not to interfere in individual cases—we cannot do that or set up meetings along those lines—but to ensure consistency, and Sir Michael is aware of the importance of a consistent approach.

That is why I cannot do everything my hon. Friend has asked me to do, because that would breach the constraints relating to the quasi-judicial nature of the process, but I hope that I have made clear to her the criteria that have to be met to remove land from the green belt. It is a clear test and a high one, but it is not for me to judge whether it is met in any given case, and there are means of that being challenged and tested through the public examination process, which will come along shortly.

My hon. Friend mentioned minerals extraction. Again, I cannot talk about specific applications, for obvious reasons, but the NPPF makes specific reference to the test that is to be applied in relation to minerals in the green belt. It is slightly convoluted because it can only work in some circumstances, but it does restate strong green-belt protections around development of that kind.

Question put and agreed to.