Green Belt (England): 18th October 2011

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Crausby. The number of Members attending this debate shows concern about the future of our green belt among not only our constituents but Members. As individuals, we understand and accept the importance of the green belt and the need to ensure that it is not only protected but enhanced.

At the outset, I will make what some might call a declaration of interest, although it is not. It is important to put on the record that my partner—that is the appropriate word, although it is one I do not particularly like to use—is a director of Persimmon and sits on its board. He would be first to agree that I have never been in anybody’s pocket, and much as he may try to suggest otherwise, he continues to exert little, if any, influence in my life, or control over it. It is important to make that declaration, however, given that allegations were made yesterday about the Conservative party being in the pocket of donors and developers. Nevertheless, the fact that so many Conservative Members are attending the debate this morning shows that we are our own people and speak on behalf of our constituents.

As hon. Members will appreciate, the green belt has a long and noble history. It was first developed in London in 1938, and Birmingham and Sheffield later took up that good idea. In 1955, the then Government urged all towns and cities to create green belts—bands of land around their environs designed specifically to restrict urban growth. Today, our green belts are more than just that; they are our green lungs and open spaces enjoyed by all. They are loved, cared for and valued by communities throughout England and no doubt in Wales—there is only one green belt in Wales—and Scotland. Today, however, we are discussing the green belt in England, because of the various concerns that have been raised about Government policy.

Particularly nowadays, the green belt defines communities, because it halts urban growth and maintains the identity of towns, villages and cities. My constituency provides a good example of how losing part of the green belt can lead to the sort of urban sprawl that it was deemed right to restrict in the 1930s, and which I believe should continue to be restricted. A person driving along the A6005, the road from Nottingham to Long Eaton in Derbyshire, will pass through communities such as Beeston, Chilwell and Toton, but they may not realise that they have left the city council boundary and entered my constituency and the area of Broxtowe borough council. Almost without break, there are only housing developments along the way. Many hon. Members ​will have similar examples in their constituencies of where the loss of the green belt has led to an unacceptable urban sprawl.

In Broxtowe, one can also see where the green belt has brought profound benefits to many communities. Along the B600, for example, Nuthall is desperately trying to retain its identity and not become part of the urban sprawl, even though that has already happened in part. The village of Watnall is keen to retain its identity along with that of Kimberley, but it is increasingly seeing the encroachment of urban sprawl. As one leaves Watnall, however, one sees the most beautiful stretch of countryside. I was born and bred in Nottinghamshire, so I feel qualified to say that although parts of my county do not contain the most beautiful pieces of countryside, where there are areas of beauty, we value and love them more. The area outside Watnall is particularly beautiful, and if hon. Members want to see a photograph of it, I urge them to visit my website. It is an historic and ancient piece of land, and those familiar with the writings of D. H. Lawrence will recognise the Moorgreen reservoir, which lies outside the boundaries of my constituency. That stretch of land, which undulates as it leads up to Greasley with St Mary’s church in the distance, is beautiful. Even more importantly, however, it defines that area of Watnall from the top of my constituency—Greasley, Moorgreen and Newthorpe, which many would say are unfortunately sprawled together. That stretch of green belt land perfectly illustrates why we must continue to protect our green belt, and why we must ensure that we do not allow development on it, and certainly not on the scale proposed in my constituency.

I do not have anything other than green belt in my constituency, because there is no greenfield land. I do not wish to insult any of the lobby groups that have made representations to this House or newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph, which has launched a campaign, but there has been a lack of understanding about the important distinction between greenfield land and green belt land. Green belt land has always been specially protected, and the Government are determined that it will continue to enjoy that protection. It marks the land out as special and different from greenfield land, which does not enjoy such protection. There has been a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of that profound distinction.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)

Anna Soubry
I will give way to as many hon. Members as I can.

Mr Gray
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her comments so far and entirely agree with them all. However, as the representative of a constituency that has no green belt land but vast acreage of green fields, I do not necessarily agree that green belt land should be given special preference over greenfield land. We ought to protect our countryside, green and pleasant as it is, irrespective of whether it is green belt land or greenfield.

Anna Soubry
My hon. Friend speaks with great passion on that issue, but this debate is about the green belt, and I hope he will forgive me if I continue to highlight the appallingly named draft national planning policy framework. All hon. Members, whatever party ​they come from, will agree that one problem with planning is the abundance of jargon. If ever an offence were to be created it could perhaps be that of the overuse of jargon and terminology that is completely lost on most ordinary people. I congratulate the Government, however, on specifically writing a document in plain English. Let us have more of that when it comes to planning. Our green belt deserves special protection. I hear my hon. Friend’s desire to protect his green fields, but green belt land is different, because it exists specifically to protect communities and prevent urban sprawl.

What has led to the situation in my constituency and the proposal to build up to 4,000 homes on the green belt in the most densely populated borough in the county, if not the east midlands? There are brownfield sites in my constituency, but enough for only 2,000 houses. The borough council has accepted a target of almost 6,000 homes, and the green belt is the only place where they can be built. I am opposed to that, and believe that I represent the overwhelming majority of my constituents in that opposition. It is a peculiar situation, given that the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Leader of the House and every Minister I have met who is concerned about planning policy, has made it clear, in questions, speeches and so on, that the Government do not intend to alter the special protection afforded to our green belt. All hon. Members will agree that that is the right and proper thing to do.

As you see, Mr Crausby, my copy of the draft national planning policy framework is well thumbed, but pages 38 and 39 contain Government statements on the special need to continue to protect our green belt:

“The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts…Once Green Belts have been defined, local planning authorities should plan positively to enhance the beneficial use of the Green Belt… Inappropriate development is, by definition, harmful to the Green Belt and should not be approved except in very special circumstances.”

On page 40, paragraph 144 states:

“A local planning authority should regard the construction of new buildings as inappropriate in Green Belt.”

Unfortunately, my council plans to build or to allow the development of some 4,000 new buildings on my local green belt.

Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Are not the principles established under the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 of creating the green belt, protecting the countryside and, most importantly, creating the lungs for our cities as vital today as they were in 1947?

Anna Soubry
The Prime Minister and others have made it clear that there will be no change to the special protection afforded to the green belt. It is unfortunate that there has been a high level of scaremongering. If we believe what has been said by the Prime Minister and his Ministers—no doubt this Minister will give us yet more assurances—that does not square with the notion that our green belt is in any way under threat. I stress again that we are talking about the green belt. ​Unfortunately, it is under threat in my constituency, and I believe that it is in many other constituencies across the country.

Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con)
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but does she agree that her constituency is fortunate to have a green belt? Many of us represent constituencies that do not have one. In my constituency, the city of Southampton, a very large city, has no green belt whatever. That puts the green fields on the edge of the city, which separate it from villages such as Nursling, Rownhams and Chilworth, under extreme stress.
Anna Soubry
I absolutely understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but the great joy, as I see it, in the policy as outlined in the document that we are discussing is that it will enable communities to come together and work together to consider how best they can encourage growth and development in their areas. The two are not incompatible. I shall move on to a good example of sustainable development.

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate and on the powerful case that she is making. She has mentioned the word “sustainable”. Would she, like me, welcome from the Minister today a statement that the presumption in favour of sustainable development, which has attracted so much interest, is overridden by green belt policy and should play no part in green belt policy and that the protection for the green belt will remain as strong as it was under the existing policy, if not stronger?

Anna Soubry
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend when he makes that point with such passion, but in some communities people may be content to have development on their green belt. That may be what they wish, if they see the benefit in their area. That is the beauty of this document, combined with the Localism Bill. That will enable communities to form their own neighbourhood plans, which may lead in turn to development on their green belt. In my opinion, if that is what communities want, that is what they should get. Sustainable development and some building on the green belt are not completely in opposition.

I argue that in my constituency we are in a different position, because we have so little green belt, which has been eroded by development over the years. If people look at a map of my constituency, they will see the spaces between the city and the communities that make up my constituency, which have their identities protected by the green belt and therefore retain their identities by virtue of the green belt.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con)
It seems to me very dangerous to allow green belt land to be developed, even if very nice local people are in favour of it, because although this generation may like it, the next generation will have to deal with the problems.

Anna Soubry
Many people in my constituency would completely echo my hon. Friend’s comments. Certainly in relation to Broxtowe, I completely agree with him. I can see little merit in any surrendering of the green belt in my constituency, for all the reasons that I have outlined.

Sustainable development has got a very bad name, whereas it should have a very good name. I shall give a quick example of how sustainable development could enhance the lives of people not just in my constituency, but in other parts of Greater Nottingham and, indeed, in other counties, such as Lincolnshire, Derbyshire and some parts of Leicestershire. It has to do with improvement of the A453. I will not dwell too long on this, but the A453 is the road that serves the city of Nottingham, and it is a disgrace. It needs widening, improving, dualling and making safe. It needs to be a modern road to bring jobs, prosperity and growth to not only the city of Nottingham, but my constituency, because the enterprise zone that the Government have announced lies both within the city and within the borough of Broxtowe in my constituency.

A considerable amount of money is required to make that improvement to the A453, and unfortunately the Government, because of the economic mess that we inherited, cannot at the moment find the money to improve it, but the county council has offered some money. It has begun to work with Rushcliffe borough council, which has also offered some money. Unfortunately, the city of Nottingham has yet to join in with that idea, but it strikes me that that road could be improved as part of a radical rethink involving councils coming together to consider proper sustainable development. That might mean a substantial number of new homes being built at the city end of it, but the infrastructure would be improved at the same time, because the A453 would be improved. Such an improvement would link to existing public transport, given the railway station at the other end, East Midlands Parkway. Rather than alienating or destroying our environment, any such development would embrace and enhance our environment. The housing development that I want to see would be exciting and innovative. It would provide great homes for people and great places for people to enjoy and for children to play in.

That is all in sharp contrast with the sort of development that has blighted my constituency and, I suspect, many others. I shall give an example, but I want to make it clear that this is no reflection on the people. A constituency such as mine is a great place to live, because of the people who live in it and the homes that they make, but those homes are often in frankly unacceptable developments. I shall provide a quick example of the tired old policy planning that we have seen in Broxtowe. I am referring to a development opposite Bilborough college. The houses there—the homes that people have made—are splendid and lovely, but the roads are too narrow. The whole development was constructed under the previous Administration’s appalling building regulations, which often led to over-dense developments. As I have said, the roads are too narrow. There was no understanding of the modern lives that people live, so we find cars parked up on pavements. There was no appreciation of the fact that the college opposite does not allow students to park on its premises, so they park all over people’s front drives, again cluttering up the pavements. There is no public transport—can you believe it?—to serve the development. It was in effect just plonked down, and I fear that that is a common feature not only in my constituency, but throughout the country.

Why are plans given the go-ahead or de facto given the go-ahead in my constituency by my borough council? I should say at this point that my borough council is ​controlled by a coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. I am sure that the Minister will join me in urging his Liberal Democrat colleagues in Broxtowe seriously to reconsider the route that they have decided to go along when it comes to future growth in my constituency. In short—again, this will be familiar to a number of hon. Members—they formed something called the Greater Nottingham joint planning advisory board. Such a term would strike terror into the hearts of many people, if they could even begin to understand it. Bizarrely, the board is chaired by Broxtowe. It accepted the previous Government’s top-down housing target. It then decided, having seen that the coalition Government were going to implement their policy to abolish the regional spatial strategy and those top-down housing targets, to continue to accept the figures that had been revised by the Government. As Members know, we sought to abolish the RSS, but the High Court would not allow us to, so until we pass the Localism Bill, we are left with the RSS housing figures. That has meant that the board has accepted the target of 52,049 homes for what is called Greater Nottingham. Of those, 5,765 are to be built in Broxtowe.
Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con)
On the RSS figures and the High Court hearing, does my hon. Friend accept that the Localism Bill is emerging legislation, so if local authorities had the, shall we say, strength of character—I cannot use the word I want to use here—to stand behind the emerging legislation, they could ignore the RSS numbers the previous Government forced on them?

Anna Soubry
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I have certainly taken the view—I may be wrong, so I am pleased that another Member agrees with me—that local authorities are absolutely not bound by the RSS figures, and if they have the courage, they can break free of them. Indeed, I was going on to give the example of Rushcliffe, which has taken exactly that route. For some reason, however, my local authority, along with other local authorities, has decided to accept the figures, even though it can break free of them. It is not waiting for the great powers the Localism Bill will give local communities or for the planning policy framework to come fully into force.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)
My constituency is in London and has a heck of a lot of green belt and green land. My constituents and I are particularly worried that when regional strategies come to an end in the rest of the country, our constituency will still have to comply with the London plan, which imposes a lot on local planning. We are extremely worried that the London plan will impose things on local people that they just do not want. I am thinking, in particular, of councils.

Anna Soubry
Again, I am grateful for that contribution. I may be wrong, but I think the planning policy framework and the Localism Bill will encourage councils to work together, which is critical. It might be asked whether Broxtowe is not working with the city of Nottingham, Erewash, parts of Ashfield and Gedling council to form the joint planning advisory board, and it is right that they are working together. However, it is a question of getting the balance right so that councils are not in the pockets of a metropolitan area or more powerful councils. ​It is about councils having equality among themselves and working together in the manner I tried to describe in relation to the development of the A453. It should be about the county council and the borough and district councils coming together and taking a broad, sensible view for their mutual benefit. They should look at how we can have housing and how we can improve our environment and our infrastructure—in other words, proper sustainable development.

To return to the issue of Broxtowe for a moment, whatever the council might say now, it has in effect accepted the 5,765 figure, which is in all the documentation, in the press releases and in the letters that were sent out to some residents. It has actually designated its preferred sites. There are to be 800 homes on the green belt between Toton and the town of Stapleford. If we look at a map, we see that that green belt perfectly defines communities and stops sprawl, but the borough council says it is the preferred site for the development of 800 homes. Another site is to the north of Stapleford, near the village of Trowell. Many say that Trowell has lost much of its wonderful village status, which could be seen in the 1950s, when the village was chosen to mark the festival of Britain celebrations. That green belt land defines those communities, as well as providing beautiful open green spaces and wonderful views for people to enjoy. The irony is that the borough council says this is a preferred site for hundreds of new homes.

My other beef is the complete lack of real consultation. In this day and age, authorities cannot just impose homes and new housing on people in an authoritarian way; they have to consult people and work with them. I went to a number of public meetings in my constituency, and people’s overwhelming cry was that the proposals were a done deal, and they felt cheated of any form of consultation. Real anger was expressed in those meetings, and rightly so.

Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is not only where the homes go, but the assumptions behind why we need so many houses in the first place? Those assumptions or guidelines are never consulted on, but they are crucial.

Anna Soubry
Again, I am extremely grateful for that positive intervention. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I hear stories of how different local authorities are stepping away from the figures and determining their own figures. One of the assurances I hope to obtain from the Minister is that local authorities will be able to determine their own housing needs and will not blindly accept figures imposed without consultation by bodies whose work those authorities have had no input in and no say over.

That is exactly the approach being taken by Rushcliffe borough council, which borders my borough council in Broxtowe. It is perhaps a surprise that Rushcliffe borough council is Conservative run. It has stepped away in large part from the Greater Nottingham joint planning advisory board, of which it was once a fully fledged member. Rushcliffe accepts that there may be some build on some of its green belt, because it is keen to have growth and sustainable development. However, instead of imposing that on people, as has, I am afraid, happened in my ​constituency, Rushcliffe has done the exact opposite; it has gone out to people and it has had workshops and full consultations with communities. It has not only consulted parish councils, but drilled right down into communities, so that people can come along, join the debate and take a real, meaningful part in the process of determining what communities want, not only now, but in the future.

Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD)
The hon. Lady is expanding on her case brilliantly. Is not the big hope for the transformation the Government are undertaking that planning will in future happen with communities, not to them, reflecting local need, not centralist tendencies?

Anna Soubry
I thank the hon. Gentleman. That is absolutely right. There are many examples of that. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) is heading up a neighbourhood plan in her constituency, where there has, understandably, been resistance to the spread of Truro. She tells me that if people in that part of Cornwall are to get the growth and jobs they want and need so much, they will have to take a more imaginative, co-operative view, which is exactly what she wants to achieve. In keeping with the approach the hon. Gentleman rightly identified, she is working with communities, not alienating them, as has been the tendency in the past and as is the case, I am afraid, in my constituency.

Bob Stewart
On that point, why can we not take the words

“presumption in favour of sustainable development”

out of the planning policy framework and insert the words “presumption in favour of local consultation before some planning decisions”? That would be a great idea, although others might disagree.

Anna Soubry
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure the Minister has heard his comments, and he will no doubt respond in his speech. However, I wish to bring my remarks to an end.
Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con)
My hon. Friend and neighbour and I are separated by some green belt, which perhaps gives us both an incentive to protect it even more. Before she winds up her powerful remarks, however, may I direct her to another comment in the draft planning policy framework, which says the advantage of the green belt is that it assists urban regeneration by encouraging the recycling of derelict land? Does she agree that before anyone even thinks of taking the easy option of taking away some beautiful green fields, they should tackle some of the problem contaminated brownfield sites we all have in our constituencies, which are not used? Moving those sites back into use would be a far more effective way of proceeding.

Anna Soubry
As ever, my hon. Friend makes a brilliant point, and I am grateful to have him as my neighbour, with or without any green belt that may separate us. He makes an important point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) may hear, about the value of sustainable development, which is not just about building more homes: it is much more than that. ​It is about bringing jobs and enhancing the environment. That may mean clearing up sites, as my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) said, so that homes may be built, or business be generated or regenerated. There are many sites, such as the Stanton works, with which my hon. Friend and I are familiar, where hundreds if not thousands of people once worked. We need that imaginative approach, which lies at the heart of sustainable development as defined in the framework and identified in the Localism Act 2011.

I suspect that what is happening in my constituency is not unique, and that is something that concerns us all.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)
My hon. Friend is making a great case for the green belt, but housing numbers are an issue and people need to live somewhere. In our towns and city centres there is living accommodation above shops. All sorts of accommodation often lies empty. It would do towns and city centres good if those properties were refurbished and lived in. That would take pressure off the green belt and green fields.

Anna Soubry
I completely agree with that helpful intervention. We need a revolution, in the best sense of the word, in the way we provide the new homes that so many people want, without damaging the environment: on the contrary, we can enhance it as we provide those homes. However, we must continue to protect the green belt, because of its special features.

Nigel Mills
I want to ask my hon. Friend a question that I know is of concern to her as well as me, about the impact of open-cast mining on the green belt. Last week, sadly, an application for open-cast mining in the area of Smalley in my constituency was approved by Derbyshire county council. Does my hon. Friend agree that homes are not the only problem that threatens the green belt? There are also the despoiling open-cast coal mines, which, instead of dealing with contaminated land that needs to be cleaned up, merely rip up green fields. We should have protection from those.

Anna Soubry
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Paragraph 145 of the draft national planning policy framework unfortunately includes mineral extraction—the very sort of open-cast mining that blights Amber Valley and sits hanging over my constituency, between Cossall and Trowell. The paragraph makes it clear that such works are not necessarily inappropriate in green belt land. I respectfully suggest to the Government that they are wholly inappropriate in green belt land. I know that open-cast mines can be restored, and I therefore understand why they are in the paragraph, but in the short term—and, it could be argued, in the much longer term—they are scourges of the countryside. They are horrible open scars. Open-cast mining and green belt are irreconcilable. I hope that the Government will consider that paragraph and do all that they can to protect the green belt from open-cast mining.

I hope that the Minister will make it clear that the Government take the view that, as my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) said, local authorities do not have to accept the regional spatial strategy figures, and that they have the freedom and power to determine their own housing need. Planning ​policy statement 3 makes it clear that in determining housing need local authorities should take into account evidence of sustainable land. I may be wrong, and I hope for some clarification, but I believe that when a local authority considers its housing need it must take into account the land available to it—especially sustainable land. That means that it must consider its green belt. It cannot be the case that homes can be built on the scale in question in Broxtowe on green belt. It is not appropriate or compatible. It is imperative that councils consider the land available to them, and that if it is green belt land it is effectively a no-go area.

Having spoken to colleagues and others, I believe that there is a great danger that what is happening in Broxtowe will be allowed to take place in other parts of England, and that we need a transitional period to make sure that we protect our green belt before the Localism Act 2011 and the policy framework come into full effect. Currently many authorities are rushing through their local plans, ignoring the 2011 Act, the framework and the certainty provided by the statements made by the Prime Minister and many others that our green belt will continue to have special protection. What Broxtowe is doing presents a danger of a presumption in favour of development on green belt, which means it will be completely vulnerable to over-keen developers and heavy-handed councils.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak for so long. It is the overwhelming desire of the hon. Members present, and others throughout the House—because it is the overwhelming view of the majority of people in this country, the constituents we represent—that the green belt should be considered special. It needs to be protected and enhanced, so that it is here not just for our generation but for generations yet to come.