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8 May 1996 : Column 171

Metropolitan Green Belt

10.59 am

Sir Michael Shersby (Uxbridge): It is some considerable time since there was a debate in the House about one of the nation's most priceless assets--the metropolitan green belt, which is greatly valued by millions of people who live both inside and outside the metropolis. At present, it is under attack from developers and sometimes, I am sorry to say, from local authorities. That attack is undoubtedly absorbing the energies and resources of both local and central Government as an almost endless stream of public local inquiries has to be held to deal with appeals and applications that are called in.

My purpose in raising the subject is to seek reassurance from the Government that they will remain steadfast in resisting the attack and that, above all, they will continue to resist the blandishments of those who argue that permission for their development is in the national interest because it would represent a substantial inward investment in Britain. I say that because some would-be developers from abroad use just that argument. My reply is that the green belt is not for sale, whatever the price, and I shall return to that aspect later.

I wish to declare an outside interest: I am president of the London Green Belt Council--a voluntary organisation whose members consist of residents' associations and others interested in preserving the green belt. I hasten to inform the House that the position is unpaid.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): I should like to place on record the gratitude that those who care for the metropolitan green belt feel towards not only my hon. Friend as president, but Mr. Ronald Smith, the chairman, and to all the committee members of that voluntary organisation. Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that his and his colleagues' diligence and vigilance are a major factor in protecting our metropolitan green belt--one of the undoubted post-war planning successes?

Sir Michael Shersby: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention and I entirely agree with his remarks about the chairman and officers of the London Green Belt Council, who put in a huge amount of work throughout the year on an entirely voluntary basis. They have been extremely successful in defending green belt policy around the metropolis. My hon. Friend has unique knowledge of the council's work as he was, for some time, my predecessor as its president.

It is worth recalling how green belt policy became the best-known single element of the United Kingdom's town and country planning policy and how it gained enormous prestige as a symbol of Government attempts to control the unpleasant effects of urbanisation. It is almost like the Clean Air Act 1956, which put an end to the London smogs. Green belt policy was formulated at much the same time as that Act, and there was a balance between the twin policies of improving the quality of air in cities and preventing the spread of cities, notably London, into the countryside.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire): Does my hon. Friend accept that, given the spread of industrial urban sprawl, the metropolitan green belt has great importance not only to London, but to smaller cities such

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as Lichfield, where Birmingham threatens to encroach on the surrounding green belt land? Does my hon. Friend recall that Sutton Coalfield used to be a separate city, distant from Birmingham? It is now more or less a suburb of Birmingham--the people of Lichfield resent that and fear that it may happen to their own fair city.

Sir Michael Shersby: My hon. Friend makes a good point, although my debate is on the metropolitan green belt. I am sure that my hon. Friend, conscious as he is of the effects in the midlands, will no doubt seek to raise the subject on an Adjournment debate. We could have a string of debates and perhaps persuade my hon. Friend the Minister for Construction, Planning and Energy Efficiency that, throughout the country, there is considerable concern about the subject.

As I was saying, green belt policy was formulated at much the same time as the Clean Air Act 1956 and there was a balance between the twin policies of improving the quality of air in cities and preventing the spread of cities, notably London, into the countryside. Those policies have been hugely popular among all sections of the community.

Although ideas relating to green belt date back as far as the last century, it was not until 1933 that Sir Raymond Unwin proposed a green girdle that placed emphasis on the need for accessible open space and recreational land such as playing fields. In 1944, Sir Patrick Abercrombie produced proposals for the planned development of the London region. He proposed a green belt ring extending for about five miles beyond the suburban ring of development. It was to include not only green belt Act land, but much more open land, not necessarily in public ownership, but nonetheless kept permanently safeguarded against development to provide for London the first stretches of open country. That is a concept that should, even today, be kept at the forefront of our minds when considering the purposes of the green belt.

With the passage of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, it became possible for the first time for local authorities to restrict development without paying compensation.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): Under a Labour Government.

Sir Michael Shersby: So it was. I pay tribute to the foresight of that policy. As I have said, it is hugely popular and welcomed by all sections of the community and by all parties. The key application of the principle of restricting development without paying compensation was implemented in 1955 by a statement to the House by the then Minister of Housing and Local Government, Duncan Sandys, later Lord Duncan-Sandys, to whom I pay tribute for his foresight. He stressed the duty to prevent

and noted:

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Mr. Fabricant: Is not much of the encroachment into the metropolitan green belt for the construction not of industrial property, but of homes? Is it not ironic that it is the Labour-controlled councils in central London that have so many unoccupied homes? If some of the 800,000 unoccupied homes across the country were filled, would there not be less pressure on the green belt?

Sir Michael Shersby: My hon. Friend makes his own point on that matter. I shall return to the question of housing later.

I should like to focus the House's attention on the policy statements made by that great, distinguished politician, Duncan Sandys. He reckoned that planning authorities should consider establishing a green belt for a number of purposes, one of which related to urban areas, where every effort should be made to prevent any further building for industrial and commercial purposes. Those words should ring in our heads throughout any debate on the green belt.

So it was that the metropolitan green belt came into existence. By 1991, it amounted to about 1.2 million acres. I believe that it has become the symbol of the Government's desire to prevent the ruin of the countryside by excessive development. Therefore, any attempt to relax the rules creates tremendous opposition, which has effectively prevented most changes from occurring. That opposition has not prevented developers from trying to get around the rules by one subterfuge or another, and nowhere is that subterfuge more evident than in the London borough of Hillingdon, in which my constituency of Uxbridge is situated.

Although it has a London prefix, Hillingdon is, and has always been, part of the county of Middlesex, which remains as an ancient geographical county despite the loss of its county council in 1964. The abomination of Greater London, which succeeded it, is no more after the abolition of the Greater London council in 1985. Hillingdon is a pleasant place, and contains about 12,000 acres of green belt land. That land effectively prevents urban sprawl from spreading out from the neighbouring boroughs of Ealing, in the east, from Harrow, in the north, and from Hounslow, in the south. It is a prime area of green belt.

Perhaps the most important area of green belt in my constituency is an area known as Hillingdon House farm, which spreads over about 140 acres and is greatly enjoyed by local residents. I shall give the House an independent opinion of the value of Hillingdon House farm--the opinion of the inspector who appraised the Hillingdon unitary development plan. He described it as having

I know it well. I spent many happy boyhood days on that site, and I swam nightly in that lovely swimming pool, which was used for the 1948 Olympic games. I have a very strong personal attachment to that area of green belt in my constituency.

Today, unfortunately, that land is under threat of development by a foreign developer--Warner Brothers, and its British partner, MAI plc--which believes that by spending £225 million on a theme park and film studios in Uxbridge, in the centre of our borough, it can persuade the local authority and possibly my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to disregard established green belt policy and to grant planning permission. That foreign

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developer is busy distributing glossy brochures of the type I am now holding, in an attempt to persuade local people that its benevolent intervention will bring huge economic benefits to the borough of Hillingdon.

Although no application has yet been made to Hillingdon council for planning permission, it has been announced that one will be made shortly. I can tell the House about the application from the information that has been so widely distributed. The proposal envisages the establishment of film studios combined with

The site--which is to be called Movie World--is intended to attract between 2.5 million and 3 million visitors during the seven months of each year that it is planned to be open.

Warner Brothers said that the site was chosen because, out of 150 locations, it was the only one that was suitable, because of the excellent public transport links by road and rail. I invite the House to consider the impact on the transport infrastructure of some 2 million to 3 million people converging on that site from across the south of England and beyond. One thing is pretty certain: people would come by car in their thousands. They would cause massive congestion on the A40(M), the M25 and the M4, all of which are already carrying heavy volumes of traffic.

The increased traffic would represent a massive increase in atmospheric pollution and would undermine the whole basis on which traffic flows on those roads have been calculated by the Department of Transport. There would also have to be a new flyover off the A40 motorway to allow traffic to enter the site.

The company claims in its glossy publicity material that the theme park will establish the first new studio complex to be built in Britain since the end of the second world war. It ignores the fact that the friends of Elstree studios feel that film production should be resumed there on a considerable scale, and that there are people at other studio sites in the country who feel the same way.

Warner Bros has claimed that the economic benefits, both locally and nationally, will outweigh the disruption that would be caused during the construction period of some two and a half to three years and that they justify such a huge commercial enterprise in the green belt. It is commercial--quite contrary to the principles that have been laid down in our national green belt policy.

What is the reality of the proposals? I believe that, to a large extent, the reality can be seen by looking at similar theme parks that Warner Brothers has already constructed--first in Australia, and more recently at Dusseldorf in Germany. The first point to take account of is that the proposed theme park is not a replica of Disney World, such as those in Florida, California or in northern France. It is, in fact, a much inferior concept, which the developers are attempting to foist on the British on the basis that they are about to create a brand new film and television facility with a theme park based on the Hollywood image.

The same claims were made in Dusseldorf, where it was proposed to include functional studios to help the ailing German film industry. That was the sweetener used to obtain planning permission and German funds. However, I do not think that the Germans have the same advantage as we do in having a green belt protected by town and country planning legislation. The Germans in

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Dusseldorf got not a harmonious group of Hollywood sound stages but a collection of mismatched factory buildings tucked away in one corner of the park.

What can people living in my constituency in the borough of Hillingdon expect of a similar Movie World studio complex and theme park, built in our green belt? The park's appearance will probably be much like an industrial estate, consisting of huge warehouses that will contain the proposed musical rides. If experience elsewhere is anything to go by, the buildings will be finished off with sprayed-on foam, and the appearance will be most unattractive. There is unlikely to be anything in the park to lift the spirit. The real motivation in the general layout will be the exploitation of every available space; every corner is likely to contain a shop selling Warner Brothers merchandise or an over-expensive food outlet.

I am sure that there will be acres of car and bus parking, probably unrelieved by trees. One can imagine the problems of getting some 15,000 visitors in and out of the site every day. How long would it be, I wonder, before the access roads would have to be enlarged to cope with that traffic? How many of the 50-year-old trees on the site would have to go if that happened?

Fortunately, one of my constituents recently visited the Warner Brothers theme park in Australia, so I have been able to get the flavour of that particular kind of development. She reports:

One can imagine the effect of that degree of noise on the surrounding residential areas of Uxbridge, Hillingdon and Ickenham. Presumably, that is what my constituents can expect if such a park is built in the metropolitan green belt. The noise, traffic, general congestion and pollution would seriously affect the quality of life of my constituents. In short, the development would be intolerable.

How would the millions of people travel to and from Movie World if it were ever to be built? I simply do not believe that a significant proportion of families would travel on public transport, using the Metropolitan and Piccadilly lines to the Hillingdon and Uxbridge underground stations. Passengers using both the local stations would need to make an onward journey by shuttle bus, which in itself would add to the congestion and atmospheric pollution.

In support of the proposed development in the metropolitan green belt, the developers claim that the theme park will create 900 jobs in the borough. An expert appraisal by Warner Brothers consultants, however, suggests a lower figure of about 130. Many of those jobs would be casual, part-time ones, and on a seven-month contract only. I recognise that such jobs would be useful because unemployment is a factor in the Uxbridge travel-to-work area, but, fortunately, the unemployment level is comparatively small, at about 6 per cent. or 2,540 people. Many of those unemployed people are, however, unlikely to obtain permanent jobs at such a theme park site, because the only jobs that are likely to be created would be a limited number of part-time ones.

It is highly possible that Warner Brothers would bring in staff from its Dusseldorf theme park to manage the site. It could do that easily if those staff are European Union nationals, who are therefore entitled to work in the United Kingdom.

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All the arguments about the proposal, interesting though they may be, are beside the main point: how can such a proposal be acceptable in the metropolitan green belt? How can it possibly square with Duncan Sandys' statement that, even within urban areas thus defined, every effort should be made to prevent further building for industrial and commercial purposes? That is exactly what is proposed by Warner Brothers and MAI plc in Uxbridge. I wonder what the members of the Labour Government in 1947 who enacted the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 would have thought of that.

The proposal was discussed in secret with the leader of the Labour-controlled Hillingdon council and two of his colleagues, including his deputy, between the late spring of 1995 and early 1996. That was admitted in an article in last week's edition of the Uxbridge Gazette. Those talks followed a trawl of possible sites by DTZ, a firm of agents acting for Warner Brothers.

I am told that the leader of Hillingdon council discussed with DTZ the possibility of Warner Brothers using land at Hillingdon House farm, or land on the Minet site at Hayes or some of the remaining land at Stockley park in the south of the borough. According to the reports that I have read in the local newspapers, when the project was first announced, there was a considerable amount of enthusiasm for it from the leader of the council and some of his colleagues. The House should take into account what then happened.

I was told of the project on 7 February; the Uxbridge Gazette was briefed extensively on Friday 8 February and the Labour group on Hillingdon borough council was informed on Monday 9 February--two days before publication of a huge article about the site, and without being given any opportunity to veto the project. There was no contact with me or with the Conservative members of the council who represent the wards immediately surrounding the site. That is an unacceptable way for a local authority and for developers to proceed. I believe that the elected representatives of the people have the right to be consulted and to make their views known at the earliest possible stage. I am not trying to make any overt party political point; I am simply recalling the factual catalogue of events that took place.

In the 23 years that I have represented Uxbridge in the House, I have never known such huge public opposition as there is now against the theme park. As a result, an action committee has been set up known as the Hillingdon House Farm Action Committee. It is comprised of residents' associations and national bodies and it has been established on a purely non-party political basis. That committee is not opposed to theme parks as such, provided that they are sited on non-green belt land in a location that is acceptable to the local people. The committee has just one aim--to uphold green belt policy and to persuade the local authority to refuse planning permission when the application is made, or to persuade my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to call in the application and decide the issue for himself.

The residents and community associations in the borough of Hillingdon that have so far affiliated to the Hillingdon House Farm Action Committee are Court drive, Harefield, Ickenham, Hillingdon Federation, North Uxbridge, Northwood, Northwood Hills, Oak farm, Pastures Mead, Ruislip, South Ruislip, Tudor way, the Friends of Hillingdon House Farm, Hillingdon village, the Drive and Hercies road. Others are about to join.

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In addition, a number of organisations other than residents' associations have affiliated to the action committee, including the Uxbridge rugby football club; the Fourways women's club; the Ickenham and Uxbridge townswomen's guilds; the Ickenham traders; the Uxbridge and Ickenham Floral Arts Society; the Uxbridge Pool Action Group; the Uxbridge and District Canine Society; the Council for the Protection of Rural England, London branch; the Friends of the Earth, Hillingdon branch; and the London Wildlife Trust. Others are expected to join.

I have cited those names to the House not merely because, as hon. Members will readily appreciate, they are not ones with which they may be instantly familiar, but simply to demonstrate the scale of the opposition to the proposal to build on the metropolitan green belt. When the application is made I, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), will present a huge petition to Parliament signed by local residents calling upon the Secretary of State to take action and call in the application.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give me some assurances when he responds to the debate. I realise that he cannot comment on any potential planning applications, but I want him to make it clear beyond doubt that it is the policy of Her Majesty's Government to uphold green belt policy.

It is not just Hillingdon House farm that is under threat in Hillingdon today. Other green belt land adjoining Heathrow airport is affected by the Terminal 5 proposal. A motorway service area at Iver in Buckinghamshire, which immediately adjoins my constituency at Cowley, was the subject of an Adjournment debate on 18 December. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to confirm whether his Department intends to reopen the public inquiry into that motorway service area.

On 1 November, my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads made it clear to the House that the position had changed since the first public inquiry was held. It is not now proposed to build the link roads between the M4 and the M40 and, therefore, the Highways Agency does not believe that it is sensible to try to connect the motorway service area to the M25. Does the Department intend to reopen the public inquiry in order to consider matters that were not covered initially, or will the project be abandoned? Local people in my constituency and in Buckinghamshire would like to know the answer to that question.

In a recent Adjournment debate, I drew attention to the flagrant misuse of a site known as the Lizzards at Yiewsley in my constituency. Activities such as rock breaking and the recycling of soil and other materials have gone on at that pleasant green belt site for about two years. Hillingdon borough council's planning department has made heroic efforts to halt those operations, but the company directors are located offshore on the Isle of Man, which makes it difficult to deal with the problem. The matter was referred to the High Court, but it has not yet been resolved. According to my latest information, an application has been made to prioritise the case so that the High Court can hear the action. Perhaps my constituents in Yiewsley will then have some relief from the endless stream of lorries carrying soil and rocks that passes through restricted residential roads in that area.

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Development of the former Townmead school site in West Drayton is the subject of a local public inquiry to be held on 30 May. Hillingdon borough council proposes to build social housing on part of the site. Moorhall open space at Harefield has been zoned metropolitan open land. Such land is in a category of its own--it is somewhere between green belt land and something else--and it is difficult to define. However, I understand that it enjoys considerable protection. I hope that my hon. Friend will spell out what that protection involves, as my constituents in Harefield are deeply concerned about part of that beautiful site being used for local authority development.

I hope that the House understands that my constituents feel that they are under considerable pressure. They are very apprehensive about the loss of green belt land and I urge my hon. Friend to apply his sharp mind to those difficult questions. I hope that he will remember also that only a mile or so to the west of my constituency, at New Denham in Buckinghamshire, in the constituency represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith)--who unfortunately cannot be present for this morning's debate as he is away on parliamentary business--Central Railways proposes to build a freight distribution depot that will gobble up another 140 acres of green belt land. The depot would be linked to a new railway that would carry freight on huge trains up to half a mile long via London to the channel tunnel.

Some 20 Members of Parliament are strongly opposed to that proposal. It would affect my constituents--particularly those in Ickenham, who face the prospect of trains which are up to half a mile long passing through residential areas at the rate of about 10 an hour. One can appreciate the noise that such trains will generate as they haul their heavy loads towards London and the channel tunnel. That application will be submitted under the Transport and Works Act 1992, and I realise that my hon. Friend cannot comment about the matter today. However, I mention it in order to highlight the fact that attacks on the green belt do not stop at Hillingdon--they are already moving westward into Buckinghamshire.

Although those local issues are vital for my constituents, the debate also provides a valuable opportunity to focus on wider issues affecting green belt land around the metropolis. Because green belt is open land, it is attractive to developers for factories, commercial developments of all kinds and for waste disposal. Examples include the elaboration of club and sporting facilities--notably golf clubs--into thinly disguised hotel and restaurant developments for general public use.

The proprietors of Stoke park in Buckinghamshire recently submitted an application to build a leisure facility that was supposedly incidental to the playing of golf. In reality, they proposed to build a 28-bedroom hotel where no residential accommodation had existed previously. It would have been used for a number of commercial activities unrelated to golf, such as conferences, wedding receptions and so on. Fortunately, that application was rejected by the South Buckinghamshire district council. Other developments include Hever in Orpington, which was actually a health and fitness suite, and Thundersley in Essex, which was a shop.

Industrial and commercial developments are sometimes described as theme or science parks and the like. About a year ago, a proposal was submitted to build a medi-park

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at Harefield on green belt land in my constituency, adjacent to the local hospital. It was intended to produce materials and provide services for the cardio-thoracic unit at Harefield hospital. I objected to that proposal, as did many other local people. Fortunately, my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), who at the time was Secretary of State for the Environment, permitted only the partial development of the site, which was considered to be in the national interest. He attached the strictest possible conditions to that development. The access roads were built, but I am glad to say that today the green belt site remains peaceful. It was never developed in the way that the developers proposed initially and I believe that it has now been sold at a substantial loss. Perhaps its original purpose was different from the one that appeared on the planning application.

A museum for the furniture industry was proposed for green belt land at Dagenham. The proposal for a corporate headquarters, a research and development centre and a museum for McLaren cars at Mizens farm in Woking was called in by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Horticultural nursery developments on green belt land also cause concern. There have been a number of applications to expand into retail businesses. A major example, which has not yet been determined by the planning authority, is the extension of the Gardens of the Rose near St. Albans. The development would include a three-storey building housing an exhibition centre, a restaurant and a shop and three other buildings comprising a lecture theatre, a library, a reading room and classrooms. I am advised that those buildings would make the development a completely different enterprise, which would be inappropriate for the green belt.

As I have said, the green belt is a tempting location for incineration plants. The incineration plant in Hillingdon has caused endless problems for local residents, even though it is not on green belt land. My hon. Friend's Department believes that county councils must prove their case if they are considering granting planning permission for incineration plants in the green belt. Incineration plants can be located on green belt sites only if there are no alternative sites available. However, it appears that some local authorities scarcely try to protect the green belt. As a Member of Parliament from Hertfordshire, my hon. Friend will know that Hertfordshire county council tried to write into its plans that such developments were not inappropriate in the green belt.

The Minister for Construction, Planning and Energy Efficiency (Mr. Robert B. Jones): It is a Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled county council.

Sir Michael Shersby: I am sure that the House will note my hon. Friend's comment.

I understand that Surrey county council has listed among possible sites one at Wisley close to the Royal Horticultural Society gardens, which would suffer from the consequences. It is strongly opposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor).

There are considerable housing pressures. Some local authorities tend to regard the green belt as expendable rather than accept a policy to put a physical limit on development. They choose deliberately, or encourage through ignorance, the belief that green belt equates with scenery--that is one of the most dangerous assumptions

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that anyone can make--so that they can sacrifice green belt that they consider is not particularly attractive. Examples include affordable housing in rural areas. Advice in policy planning guidance notes is clear; it says that, in the green belt, affordable housing should be within settlements. I am advised that Surrey is trying to make it "within or at the edge of" settlements and some districts elsewhere have done the same. That would mean expanding villages into the green belt in conflict with what the green belt is supposed to be.

On 26 April, an article in the journal Planning said that the Department of the Environment is now adopting a firmer line to enforce the policy. It is reported that

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will pay close attention to that aspect of the problem. If green belt villages are treated differently from non-green belt villages, it should stop. It would fatally undermine green belt policy. I am sure that an exemption would be claimed in relation to affordable housing, but in reality it would be unlikely to stop there.

There is the ready assumption by some planning authorities that household predictions justify changes in green belt policy. There is a continuing inconsistency that I hope that my hon. Friend will consider.

I am told that in Bedfordshire the structure plan has recently got into considerable confusion and that the revised Hertfordshire structure plan seems set to go the same way. In addition, the current draft of the Hertfordshire plan implies that developments of under 500 dwellings are too small to concern the county council. That is stated as part of a definition of "major development" and is not in a green belt or non-green belt context.

Mr. Robert B. Jones: It is a Liberal Democrat and Labour county council.

Sir Michael Shersby: My hon. Friend has made a point about the political complexion of the county council. I am trying to keep away from party politics this morning and to concentrate on green belt matters. However, my hon. Friend's point is relevant and will be noted.

Challenging household predictions is difficult territory. It requires a great deal of expertise, of which the Council for the Protection of Rural England is the best conservation exponent. Some authorities are more robust in challenging predictions than others. For example, Berkshire has done so in the past and Cheshire seems to be doing so now in respect of its green belt. In contrast, Hertfordshire county council has a plan which, while protecting part of the county nearest London, proposes to take a swathe of attractive countryside nearly two miles long, west of Stevenage, cut off by the M1, for 5,000 dwellings with a possibility of another 5,000 some years ahead. Surely that makes nonsense of green belt policy. That project has not yet reached the stage of examination in public, but no doubt it will be a matter for consideration in due course by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

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The problem of white land provides a continuing source of confusion arising from confused policy by the Department. It was originally stated--between 1965 and 1985--that land which the Secretary of State of the day had not decided whether to approve as green belt could be treated as green belt until the decision was made. Over the years, as decisions were made, white land gradually disappeared, either becoming green belt or not. The concept is now being reintroduced in an even more confusing manner and as land which, when new or revised plans are drawn up, is not needed for development. I hope that my hon. Friend will look at that.

At least one county council now wants to downgrade some approved green belt land to white land and to push the present green belt boundary further out, making the land between it and the town white land. My hon. Friend's Department has not yet said that such a practice would be wrong and I hope that he will take an early opportunity to do so, either this morning or in the near future.

I hope that my hon. Friend will take account of the fact that the guidance is ambiguous and confused and is not helped by paragraph 2.12 of policy planning guidance note 2. It is no use having green belt which can be pushed back whenever boundaries are reviewed. The proper course is surely to use up genuine white land, stop when the green belt boundary is reached and, if one cannot leap over it, declare that no further development is acceptable.

There is the Thames gateway, a commendable concept strongly supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) and, doubtless, by others. The concern expressed about that by the London Green Belt Council relates to the publicity that I am told emphasises development and gives insufficient attention to the countryside. The London Green Belt Council thinks that conservation interests should play a greater part in the running and selling of Thames gateway, and that applies to both banks of the Thames.

There is the strange designation of compensatory green belt for that which is lost. The courts have held that very special circumstances are required to change green belt boundaries and they apply as much to extending it as reducing it. In general terms, that seems indisputable, but in practice it is much easier to lose green belt than to gain it and there is no requirement, as there is when registered common land is lost, to designate other land in exchange. When major pieces are lost, there should be a willingness to add land to the green belt. A major proposal to that end is being advocated by conservation interests in respect of the Hoo peninsula in Kent.

I hope that, in the 46 minutes that I have been speaking, I have been able to set out some of the real concerns that exist about the threat to the metropolitan green belt from developers and from some local authorities. We are all trustees for the green belt. If we want to hand it on to successive generations for them to enjoy, we must be ever-vigilant. Above all, we need a robust declaration from my hon. Friend the Minister, from the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) on the Opposition Front Bench and from all the other political parties in the House that they will stand up to those who chisel away at an inheritance that was made by those who conceived the idea of establishing the metropolitan green belt. We must not let them down.

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11.47 am

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham): I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge(Sir M. Shersby) for raising this important debate. As he said, the metropolitan green belt is one of the greatest parts of our heritage around London and the south-east. It is vital that we conserve it. We owe a great debt to the far-sighted environmentalists of the 1930s who established the concept of the metropolitan green belt and to our predecessors in the Conservative Governments of the 1950s who laid down so many of the ground rules that have led to the continuing success of the green belt.

The metropolitan green belt is a particular enthusiasm of mine. As a student at the London School of Economics in the early 1970s, and in digs in Croydon, it was a great relief to get out into the countryside which was so close by and which was clearly delineated and protected by green belt legislation. It is just as relevant further east in my Gravesham constituency. That came home to me yet again very clearly only last Monday, when I joined dozens of my constituents in a sponsored walk from the village of Chalk, to the east of Gravesend, to the Thames marshes, which are such a bastion of environmental preservation and an important staging post for migrating birds. Indeed, the marshlands of the Thames are part of our great heritage, but they are under threat and should be carefully preserved.

The green belt in the borough of Gravesham is clearly defined. It runs along the route of the A2, to the south of Gravesend, and along the clear line of Thong lane at Riverview park and Castle lane at the village of Chalk, to the east. That line has been expanded of late by the imaginative action of Gravesham borough council--when it was Conservative controlled.

Some 20 years ago, when the borough was run by the Labour party, it acquired great stretches of land to the south of Riverview park to build vast council estates. Those estates did not proceed when the council went Conservative in the 1970s, but a large council debt of some millions of pounds was left behind. The Conservative council successfully disposed of a small portion of the land in the lower urban area for the development of housing and, with the proceeds, cleared the debt and dedicated the entire remainder of that agricultural land--comprising many acres south of Riverview park--to inclusion in the green belt, in which it is now secure. I assure the now Labour Gravesham borough council that the residents of Riverview park and I will keep a hawk eye on any intention to develop in that area, especially as it is now safely in the green belt.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge referred to the Thames gateway proposal, which we in north Kent see as a marvellous opportunity for the creation of new jobs for people in our area. Safely included in the Thames gateway document are specific safeguards for our green belt and, notably, the green belt under greatest threat--that to the east of Gravesend. The "Thames Gateway Planning Framework Consultation Draft" document clearly states, on page 58:

That could hardly be clearer.

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The area to the east of Gravesend, a large part of which is marshland, and the area to the south of the A2, include some of the most beautiful metropolitan green belt in the London area. One has only to visit Nurstead in the parish of Meopham or the remote and rural parish of Luddesdown, which is hidden away in a fold of the hills of the north downs, to see some countryside that has been remarkably preserved and has avoided the depredations of so-called civilisation over recent years. That countryside is only some 30 miles from the centre of London and this place.

The pressures on the metropolitan green belt are immense and include housing and the transport infrastructure of roads and, in Kent's case, the channel tunnel rail link. The pressure from housing is especially great and Kent county council, over the decades, deserves praise for the way in which it has fought off London overspill encroaching on the fair county of Kent. But the guard must be kept up against massive housing development in the green fields of Kent. At the moment, for example, Kent county council is considering the latest edition of the Kent structure plan. I note that many thousands of new houses have been suggested for 2006 to 2011. The Conservative group on Kent county council has always argued that the limit on any increase should be 26,000. In fact, there are strong pressures for far higher figures. I congratulate the group on the arguments that it has put, which have now forced the Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled Kent county council to reign back on the figures that were originally suggested, to the limit of 26,000 proposed by the Conservative group. I hope that our colleagues at the Department of the Environment will carefully note that figure, which Kent county council has now accepted.

I referred to the depredations on the metropolitan green belt of the channel tunnel rail link. When it first burst upon us in 1988, it caused quite devastating fears in the residents of the green belt in the Istead Rise and New Barn areas of my constituency. One of the biggest dangers in the current proposals for the channel tunnel rail link is the proposal that the line of the railway should follow the A2 from west to east, which is the north-south boundary of the metropolitan green belt. The proposed route of the railway line is some hundreds of metres south of the road. There are obvious pressures to take the boundary of the metropolitan green belt further south and line it up with the railway line, bringing urban development between the line of the railway and the line of the road. I believe that the Department of the Environment and all the various planning authorities should stand firm and try to keep the land between the railway and the road strictly agricultural or set to woodland. In no event should it be used for industry or housing, because the environmental conditions would be quite unreasonable.

The channel tunnel rail link will bring the Ebbsfleet international station. That is welcome to my constituents, because it will generate thousands of new jobs and create new transport links, not only to the continent but to London. Commuting to London will be vastly improved; travel times will drop from some 40 minutes at present to 19 minutes when the new station opens. Nevertheless, environmental green belt challenges will arise. The Ebbsfleet water course has many environmental aspects of great value and I assume that up-to-date planning techniques can be used so that the environmental situation of that water course is improved for the benefit of local residents and, especially, wildlife.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge referred to the Warner Brothers theme park idea for his part of Hillingdon. We are not immune to such ideas in north-west Kent--there has been an interesting suggestion that a Las Vegas-style gambling industry should be brought to north-west Kent, and to the Ebbsfleet valley in particular. That is a ludicrous and unwelcome suggestion that is not for us. If the Americans and people in the Caribbean like that sort of thing, they can have it with my blessing.

There is also a site of special scientific interest along the route of the channel tunnel rail link at Ashenbank wood and Cobham park--areas of ancient woodland and Repton landscapes. No mitigation of any value has been proposed against the depredations of the channel tunnel rail link. At one stage, we engaged the interest of the Environment Commissioner of the European Union, but that interest dropped off when we lost our excellent Conservative Member of the European Parliament. His Labour successor has shown no interest in obtaining the environmental grants that we were pursuing. I believe that Ashenbank wood and Cobham park should be considered in terms of conservation.

The pressure of roads on the metropolitan green belt is, in many ways, the most insidious way of smashing up the green belt. Housing can be fought off but, somehow, roads, because they are public, seem to be immune to all the planning safeguards.

In the area of north-west Kent that I represent, the greatest threats come from the Medway roads that are being proposed and the lower Thames crossing proposal. We all know about the M25 and the pressures on it. We know also that those pressures are steadily percolating to create a further massive road, the outer London orbital. The logic that lies behind the pressures is obvious. When we ask the Department of Transport or Kent county council's highways department whether there are plans to construct an outer London orbital motorway, the answer is a categorical no, but at the same time there are various proposals, including the Wainscott bypass and the Leybourne bypass, which would be further south in Kent. Against that background, we begin to see the skeleton of the outer London orbital appearing out of the mists. I urge future generations to watch out. There is something afoot. One of the clearest signs that that is so is the proposal for a lower Thames crossing.

Where would a lower Thames crossing come ashore on the Kent banks? I fear, as do my constituents, that there is perverse logic in the minds of planners to bring the crossing ashore just to the east of the great urban conurbation of Gravesend and Northfleet. Although we see our green belt and green fields to the east of Gravesend as essentially green, many highway planners seem to see them as white empty land across which they can force their motorways--there being few residents to protest. I am worried by the enthusiasm of the county council's highways department for the crossing project.

The county councillor for the Gravesham rural division proposed, in a motion to the council, that the council should oppose any lower Thames crossing that would bring its roads across the green belt immediately east of Gravesend. The motion was voted down by the Labour and Liberal Democrat groups that control the county council. That is an extremely bad omen. My constituents

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in Riverview park and Chalk should pay close attention to it. An outer London orbital road should not come into the area.

Furthermore, there is the danger of the proposed Wainscott bypass, which to date has been fought off. We are, however, in the last stages of the rearguard action. If the bypass is constructed, it will cross the metropolitan green belt in the parishes of Higham and Shorne. That would effectively break the last green lung between the Greater London conurbation and the Medway towns.

The danger of the proposed Wainscott bypass goes way beyond breaking the green lung to which I have referred. It would also aid the development of the Hoo peninsula, which has wonderful countryside, including marshlands, which provide a staging post during the migration of the many bird colonies that pass through on their way from the arctic to southern Europe and on to Africa. We must preserve nature in all these areas. My further concern is that the Wainscott bypass would act as a magnet for the outer London orbital road, with its lower Thames crossing.

The debate has been extremely important. The metropolitan green belt is the greatest heritage that previous generations have handed down to those of us who have the privilege to live in the south-east. We must defend the area against housing and the depredations of highway infrastructures. Those who live in the metropolitan green belt areas and adjacent urban areas look to the House to protect them.

12.3 pm

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby) on securing the debate. His efforts on behalf of the green belt are widely respected. As he told the House, he has been president of the London Green Belt Council since 1989.

Anyone who doubts the value of the debate should have listened to the contribution of the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold). Had I not heard it from his own lips, I would never have believed that the hon. Gentleman was once a student at the London School of Economics and that he spends Sunday afternoons walking through the marshes of Gravesend. His contribution was extremely well received and I, for one, listened to it with great care.

Unlike the hon. Member for Uxbridge, however, the hon. Member for Gravesham failed to note the contribution that the Labour party has made to the development of green belt policy. The Labour party has long supported the concept of green belt protection. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Uxbridge said, it was a Labour Government, through the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, who allowed local authorities to incorporate green belt proposals in their first development plans.

Labour today believes that the need for the green belt is still as great. Planning policy should be based on strategic considerations agreed through the appropriate local democratic processes and taking into account national guidance.

Many Members on both sides of the House may have cause to regret the shortcomings of post-war planning, but it is useful to stand back and compare our planning system

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with those which prevail in many other countries, where urban sprawl knows no limits, where rural landscapes have become dotted with building plots, offices and factories, without any rhyme or reason and often with no coherence between development and necessary infrastructure. Our planning system may be in need of renewal and reform--it should become more accessible to ordinary people, and it should also be a quicker and more cost-effective process--but it still compares well with the systems to be found in other countries. The green belt policy has become a central and vital feature.

The essential characteristic of green belts is their permanence. The House will know that 12 per cent. of England is now covered by them. That is almost one eighth of the country. Department of the Environment planning policy guidance note No. 2 lays down five sensible purposes for including land in green belts. First, there is the need to check the unrestricted sprawl of large, built-up urban areas. Secondly, we must prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another. Thirdly, there is a need to safeguard the countryside from encroachment. Fourthly, we must preserve the setting and special character of historic towns. Fifthly, and finally, there is the need to assist urban regeneration by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

It is right that there must be a strong presumption against inappropriate development. In the planning review that I have launched, Labour will be considering ways of encouraging both the extension and the strengthening of the green belts. What I have to say about green belt land also applies to conservation areas. While the hon. Member for Gravesham was walking from the village of Chalk to the Gravesham marshes, I spent Sunday afternoon with my wife and son walking through the Bedfordshire countryside. There is an extraordinary proposal from a developer to use part of a conservation area in and around mid-Bedfordshire for an industrial development. It is extremely important that we ensure that green fields, green belt and surrounding areas are protected, and not only because they enable city dwellers like myself and others to enjoy the countryside. It is vital, too, that they constitute an essential part of our policy.

Two key national factors must be taken into account in reviewing planning policy to assist Britain in facing the new challenges of the next century. First, no Government or local authority can ignore the need for economic development that will enhance our competitiveness, especially in those areas where the United Kingdom has the energy, talent, skills and creativity to be a world leader. Secondly, the planning restrictions should be balanced against the equally important objective of encouraging the use of public transport. Here in London, those considerations are particularly important.

I note what the hon. Member for Uxbridge said about the Movie World application. I should not like the debate, the hon. Gentleman's speech or, indeed, my own speech to be seen as an attack on the importance of the country's film and television production. I note that in the parliamentary guide the hon. Gentleman lists cinema as one of his interests. We should be proud that our country plays a leading role in film and television production. Anyone who has visited the museum of London's excellent exhibition on the history of the film industry will be well aware of the strategic location of many film studios in the west London area. Such issues will be of

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concern to all London residents, and no doubt that will be taken into consideration if and when a public inquiry is held.

Planning policy needs to be dynamic. Since my appointment to my present post, I have said many times, in many different forums, that it is extremely important for planning policy not to operate as a policy in its own right; it should be the servant of other objectives. It should be a way of ensuring that much can be achieved without a penny of taxpayers' money being spent. Opposition Members do not want taxpayers to be burdened, and one way of preventing that is to make the planning system operate as a servant of policy. In a few weeks' time I shall publish my review of planning policy, and I hope that it will include a number of the points that I have made today--and, indeed, a number of the points made by the hon. Member for Uxbridge. I think that he is entirely right, despite the attempts of his hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham to make party-political capital out of the situation. I believe that there is, and ought to be, an all-party approach to protecting the green belt.

The Labour party will soon publish its proposals for a sustainable transport policy, aimed at making public transport more efficient and accessible and giving local people incentives to switch from cars to other forms of transport for employment and leisure purposes. Our green belt policy cannot be pursued in isolation from that essential objective. Green belt land varies tremendously, from historic woodland and villages to the recreation land and wasteland that is now in the middle of urban areas. What was appropriate green belt land just after the war should not necessarily be classified in the same way today. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman's constituency, in the borough of Hillingdon, now contains 50 more acres of green belt than it previously did. I am sure that he welcomes that.

I am not in a position to comment directly on the Movie World proposal--on which the hon. Gentleman, as a constituency Member, rightly dwelt. I am not aware of any secret meetings between councillors and developers. Indeed, I find it strange that the hon. Gentleman should describe them as secret, given that they were mentioned, apparently at length, in the Uxbridge Gazette.

Sir Michael Shersby: The secret meetings took place over a long period. The article in the Uxbridge Gazette was not published until February this year. Many months elapsed while the meetings were taking place. The Labour group on the council--let alone the Conservatives and local residents--knew nothing of them. That is all in the Uxbridge Gazette, a copy of which I have in my hand.

Mr. Vaz: If it is in the Uxbridge Gazette, no doubt it must be true.

The hon. Gentleman gave us a timetable. He was told about the proposals on 7 February 1996, the Uxbridge Gazette was told on 8 February 1996 and the Labour group was told on 9 February 1996. The article appeared in the paper two days later. I think that the hon. Gentleman was fortunate to be consulted five days before the piece appeared in the local newspaper. I do not know about the Minister, but I get to know about events in my local council after they have featured in the Leicester Mercury.

Questions that should be asked about the development include questions about the nature of the current land use, the economic development benefits and examination of

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alternative sites, if any, public transport considerations and what, if any, strategic considerations there are for London and the United Kingdom as a whole in relation to the film industry and tourism. Account must also be taken of public opinion in the immediate vicinity and more widely. I note what the hon. Gentleman said about that. An action group has been formed, and a number of formidable groups are affiliated to it. I am sure that they will express their views. One of those groups has already written to me, and I have written back stating, in similar terms, that I cannot intervene.

To be successful, any application must show the existence of exceptional circumstances that justify the presumption against green-belt development. I have made our position clear. Wider strategic conditions must also be taken into account, but we must also be firm in our resolve to stop any further outward growth of cities and conurbations, and the merging of neighbouring towns. All those are matters for due process in the planning procedures, in which the genuine concerns of local residents can be balanced against national and regional considerations.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge was right to raise the matter at this stage. He is clearly very concerned about it. He was also right, however, to remind the House that no planning application has been made. The Minister has not had an opportunity to consider the matter in his quasi-judicial capacity, but I am sure that, in time, the House and the country will hear much more about the proposal.

12.15 pm

The Minister for Construction, Planning and Energy Efficiency (Mr. Robert B. Jones): I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby) on securing the debate, and on choosing such an important subject. As president of the London Green Belt Council, he has an interest that extends far beyond his constituency. As one who comes from that area, I know how long he has been committed to the green belt. I was also pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman)--my hon. Friend's predecessor as president of the London Green Belt Council--was present for his speech. That illustrates Conservatives' commitment to the green belt in general.

When I was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1983, I was fortunate enough to be appointed as a member of the Select Committee on the Environment, on which I continued to serve until I eventually became its Chairman. The first inquiry that the Committee conducted after I became a member was on the green belt and planning policy. The then Clerk to the Committee was one Reg Hobden, who I note has now surfaced again as one of the activists in the Hillingdon House Farm Action Committee. I am delighted that Mr. Hobden retains such an active interest in environmental matters, and I think that local residents are lucky to have such a talented and articulate exponent of their views.

The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) cited a number of objectives for green belt policy. One--I think that it was the fifth on his list--was the objective of encouraging regeneration and the use of derelict land. That was a recommendation of the Environment Select Committee, which shows how valuable such Committees can be to policy-making and to the House as a whole.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge may be interested to know that I spent my youth in the London borough of Hillingdon, and I vividly remember the lido, Mad Bess woods and, of course, Harefield, which is one of the few genuinely rural communities left in the Greater London area--although, as I drove through it the other day, I noted with some sadness that there seems to be a great deal of urban sprawl there. Anyone who is associated in any way with the London borough of Hillingdon must be aware that, whenever Labour is in control there, the environment goes out of the window. I need say only two words, "Alderman Bartlett".

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge asked me to be robust about green belts. I certainly want to be so, since they are a cornerstone of our town and country planning system, and have been for more than 40 years. In those 40 years, many things have changed. Continued economic growth has led to rising prosperity and far greater pressures on the environment. Now, more than ever, we need to remember that we hold the environment in trust for future generations, and must therefore take planning and other decisions wisely.

Green belts are popular at home and, I find, widely admired abroad. Since 1979, green belt land has more than doubled, and now covers 12 per cent. of England--3.8 million acres. The essential characteristic of green belts is their longevity. Their protection must be maintained as far as can be seen ahead. Recent research carried out for my Department confirmed the effectiveness of green belts in preventing urban sprawl and safeguarding the countryside from encroachment. It found that boundary alterations had affected less than 0.3 per cent. of green belts in eight years. The planning appeals system strongly upheld the principle of green belts. Most planning permission has been given for small-scale changes that have not significantly affected the open appearance and character of green belt land.

The research recommended a number of refinements to make the policy even more effective. We consulted on those and last year published a revised version of planning policy guidance note No. 2. Our aim was to strengthen the policy, learning from the experience of the past40 years, and to leave it in even better shape to face the challenges of the next century. The limited changes that we made take greater account of environmental and economic factors and remedy some practical difficulties in operating the policy, without compromising in any way the protection given to green belts.

The revised PPG2 reaffirms the strict control over development in green belts and maintains the presumption against inappropriate development. It advises how green belts can contribute to sustainable development objectives by shaping the pattern of urban development. It encourages proper consideration of the long-term direction of development. It provides for the future of existing major developed sites in a way that can secure environmental benefits. For the first time, it sets out positive objectives for the use of land in green belts.

The Government are committed to sustainable development. Green belts can play an important part in that, by helping to shape patterns of urban development at regional and sub-regional scale and ensuring that development occurs in locations allocated in development

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plans. The restrictions placed on building in green belts are complemented by policies that encourage the optimum use of land in urban areas, the reclamation of derelict land, the release of unused land owned by local authorities and other public bodies, and by grants and incentives to developers willing to tackle difficult or derelict sites in inner cities. For example, there are many areas of redundant and under-used land in east London, and the redevelopment of it can take the pressure off green field sites. Reusing such land with urban regeneration will reduce the pressure for development in the open countryside and especially in the green belt.

The London green belt is one of the capital's greatest assets. It has a historic significance, dating from legislation before the second world war. Despite the strong development pressure from the conurbation, the metropolitan green belt has successfully prevented the encroachment of London into its surrounding countryside. Nor do I underestimate the role of metropolitan open land, which is recognised as land of more than a borough significance, generally because of its size and catchment area.

We shall shortly publish revised strategic guidance for London's planning authorities. It will maintain the strong presumption against inappropriate development in green belts and provide a London perspective on national green belt policy. The boroughs will be asked to set out strategic policies for the long-term future of the green belt and to support efforts to improve its environmental quality. The guidance will also emphasise the importance of metropolitan open land. It will stress that such land should not be used for developments that compromise its open character and value to London's setting. I should make it clear that there is a clear presumption against inappropriate development of metropolitan land of equal status to that in the green belt.

In London and areas of the home counties, parts of the metropolitan green belt are afforded additional safeguards under the Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act 1938. That Act was particularly pertinent at a time when ownership of land was the only way in which to limit its use to purposes appropriate in a green belt. Since then, sufficient protection has evolved under the planning system, so that public ownership is no longer seen as the main method of safeguarding the green belt. There are very few occasions on which local authorities need to resort to buying land to protect the green belt.

Nevertheless, each application under the 1938 Act for ministerial consent to the disposal of land will continue to be examined very carefully and treated on its merits. Publicity must be given for proposals to dispose of land under the Act. The Secretary of State takes account of any objections that are received. One of the factors that will certainly be taken into account when considering any such application is whether retention of the land in public ownership is necessary or desirable as a means of securing green belt objectives.

Except in very special circumstances, the construction of new buildings in green belts is undesirable unless it falls within a very limited number of categories, which include agriculture and forestry, essential facilities for outdoor sport and outdoor recreation, cemeteries, and other uses of land that preserve the openness of the green belt.

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The reuse of buildings, however, should not compromise the openness of green belts, since the buildings are already there. The alternative to reuse might be a building being left vacant and prone to dereliction. Reuse can help to secure the continuing stewardship of land. Conversions of buildings in green belts are subject to stringent safeguards, which preserve the openness and character of the land and require careful consideration of the environmental and traffic implications of the new use.

There are some substantial major developed sites in green belts, such as pre-war factories and power stations. Often, they predate the green belt. Some are in continuing use and some are redundant. Our guidelines enable local authorities to make realistic provision for their futures in their development-plan policies, but in such a way as to secure environmental benefits. That is good for the green belt and good for the economy.

Development that does not fall in those limited categories of development is inappropriate in green belts. It is necessary for the developer to demonstrate very special circumstances to justify permission for such development. Very special circumstances will not exist unless the harm by reason of inappropriateness, and any other harm, is clearly outweighed by other considerations. Such circumstances are not easily demonstrated.

There may be instances where the Secretary of State requires a planning application to be referred to him for decision. Our policy on call-ins is to be very selective. In general, proposals will be called in only if they raise planning issues of more than local importance. Examples include applications that could have wide effects beyond their immediate area, give rise to substantial controversy nationally or locally, or conflict with national policy on important matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge will know that some applications in his borough have been called in on precisely those grounds.

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I should like to turn to the specific points that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge made. The first related to the motorway service area at Iver. I can tell him that the inquiry into that is to be reopened, but no date has yet been announced. I should also like to comment on the proposals of Warner Brothers and Clive Hollick's--of the Labour party--MAI plc for a theme park and film studios at Hillingdon House farm in Uxbridge, on which many of my hon. Friend's remarks focused. The proposals have received extensive coverage in the press and correspondence, particularly from my hon. Friend's constituents.

I understand that Hillingdon House farm is a site of60 hectares in the metropolitan green belt, which is currently used for recreational purposes, including a ski slope, football pitches, cricket pitches and open countryside. The proposed theme park would use all the land, although part of the film studios would be located on the non-green belt part of the site.

At present, no planning application for the proposed theme park and film studios has been lodged with the London borough of Hillingdon. Therefore, it is not possible for the Secretary of State to consider whether to intervene and exercise his power of call-in under section 77 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Furthermore, I am certain that my hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment on the proposals' merits, because to do so would prejudice the Secretary of State's consideration of the matter should any application be referred to him.

The debate has been very useful. I think that all hon. Members are united in a commitment to the green belt. Our policy on green belt forms part of a sound framework for the continued protection and enjoyment of open space around our cities, which will serve us well into the 21st century and beyond. I am sure that that is the view of my hon. Friends and their constituents, and I commend such an approach to the House.

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Green Commuter Plan (Nottingham)

12.28 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): The purpose of the debate is to ask the Secretary of State for Transport what the Government will do to support and spread the word about the imaginative and innovative green commuter plan in Nottingham. There is nothing technical or complicated about it: it involves the sensible encouragement of car use and sharing, and it is backed by a little common sense and organisation. It is a pioneering innovation, which I hope the outgoing Government will support in their last months. I hope that they will also use their currently undemocratic regional offices to spread that example throughout the United Kingdom.

Already, the east midlands central office of the Government has abandoned its pith helmet, its khaki shorts and its donkey, and has started to look at a commuter plan for its staff. The councillors and officers of Nottingham city council and Nottinghamshire county council deserve immense credit for piloting this new venture and for taking a risk on a bright idea.

We know how unpleasant the fumes and congestion caused by traffic can be, but Nottingham has underlined a more serious economic side to congestion. Millions of pounds in time and resources are wasted as people sit in fumes and car congestion in and around Nottingham. For a city such as this, that represents a serious drain on resources and productivity which it can do without.

The work of the city and county councils to regenerate the local economy would be seriously hampered if the city were to grind to a halt as traffic continued to grow, quite apart from the dreadful consequences of air pollution and traffic accidents. The worst congestion in Nottingham, as in many other places, is at rush hour, and reducing the impact of commuter traffic has been the councils' first priority. The councils have done much to improve transport in the city, but Nottingham has realised that the key to reducing car commuting is the involvement of employers and employees, and that that is where commuter plans have a part to play.

I am bringing this matter to the attention of the House and the Minister because the Nottingham example provides a valuable lesson for Government and Parliament. It is an initiative that the Department of Transport must support more solidly, not just in Nottingham but in the many other towns and cities where rush hour traffic and congestion damage the local economy. The answer is not the slashing of 20 per cent. from local transport budgets or more ludicrous, lottery-style competitions between local authorities for ever smaller pots of money, but real support from the centre for local initiatives.

Around the world, sensible commuting is catching on. Los Angeles has introduced a diamond lane, where only cars with more than one person are allowed. However, I understand that, with typical ingenuity, the trade in blow-up dolls has considerably expanded. It also uses commuter plans and car sharing schemes, which come into force when air quality falls below acceptable levels, as another way to tackle the consequences of traffic jams which are the cause of pollution.

I shall explain in more detail the way in which the city and county councils in Nottingham are approaching the problem. Both councils have agreed that it is essential to

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lead by example, and are adopting commuter plans for their staffs. The county council's "Steps" programme is already well established. Councillor Denis Petit, the leader of the county council, told me, "We could hardly ask others to do something that we had not done ourselves, so we took the lead with this 'Steps' initiative."

The county council and the city council have produced a resource pack, which has been spread far and wide throughout the city and which encourages local employers to follow the example that has been set by the councils. It has taken off with a vengeance. Boots, Nottingham Trent university, Queen's medical centre, Clarendon college, the City hospital, CCN and many other local employers have taken up the initiative in their own way, and are organising their own versions of the green commuter plan.

Like so many of our continental partners, Nottingham is proving that much can be done by each employer to encourage employees to walk, cycle, use public transport, work from home or share cars. That must and can be done not by using big brother attitudes, but by offering people encouragement and the opportunity to change their habits when that suits them. We in Britain seem slightly embarrassed to act in this social or solidarity manner. Only when we confront that problem will we be able to take serious action at local level.

Many companies already offer loans to help with the purchase of cars, and such schemes could easily be adapted to include loans for the purchase of cycles or public transport travel cards. Local transport plans, which will be introduced by an incoming Labour Government, will make provision and help set targets for such achievements, and will encourage the use of such green commuter plans.

Organising car sharing schemes can put people in touch with others who make similar journeys to work every day; that not only saves on traffic and pollution, but saves people money and is more sociable. The main reason why many people do not share cars at the moment is that they do not know with whom they can share. Work by employers and councils to put people in touch with each other through databases and post code coffee clubs, and the provision of a guarantee of emergency travel home can have a dramatic and immediate effect on the amount of traffic in a given locality.

Examples in continental Europe show how that can have a significant impact on local traffic. Schemes such as the Bremen Stadt Auto car sharing plan in Germany provide models for such work, and it is being taken up by Labour councils in the UK, notably in Edinburgh. In the Netherlands, 2,400 companies are now co-operating in car sharing schemes, and already there has been a 15 per cent. reduction in car commuting.

Nottingham has proved that some people need cars during their working day, but that that does not necessarily mean that they have to drive their cars to work. For example, Nottinghamshire health authority offers pool cars for essential car users. Four cars cover the needs of 150 people who might otherwise have had to drive to work. Similar savings are being made by the city council using local taxi firms.

The city also provides a great example by its proposals for the new ice stadium, which was made famous by Torvill and Dean, by experimenting with alternatives to on-site parking, and by the issue of free park-and-ride tickets to those who buy stadium tickets. Those are

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innovative and imaginative ways in which people coming together on a small scale can try to tackle the problems that are caused by traffic congestion.

Big employers can encourage their staff to use public transport by negotiating with local operators to secure bulk discounts for travelcards. Nottingham city council runs a successful scheme, which provides staff with discounted bus travel. Another important success by the councils is cycling. Their partnership with local employers has started to produce results, although much more can be done. The Queen's medical centre and Nottingham Trent university are starting schemes to encourage cycling, and others are expected to follow shortly.

As well as loans for the purchase of cycles and the provision of secure parking, employers can negotiate bulk discounts on insurance or offer travel allowances. As recently as yesterday, Nottingham city council agreed to approve a bicycle allowance scheme offering 15p a mile to council staff. As we speak, more new initiatives are being introduced to tackle the serious problems in the city.

The two councils have also demonstrated the importance of facilities at work. They include not only secure cycle parking but showers and changing facilities. I used to cycle to the House many years ago, but I had to give it up because I felt so filthy when I arrived, and there were no adequate shower facilities. Given the inadequate facilities that are available here, perhaps the Serjeant at Arms will consider that in more detail.

Businesses in Nottingham are also being asked to consider teleworking and flexible working hours. They, too, can help to reduce rush hour congestion, as well as bring other unrelated benefits to companies and to employees. In that context, we need to consider schools, which, in recent years, as the Minister well knows, have been one of the most significant contributors to the massive rise in peak-time commuting. That problem needs to be dealt with, perhaps by considering school green commuter plans. Young people are often the most active environmentalists. Perhaps they could devise their own plans at their schools.

The success of Nottingham's project, still in its early stages, is already impressive. The employers I have mentioned, including Boots and CCN, are taking an active interest. The breakthrough that has been achieved in Nottingham is such that companies have been persuaded that helping to tackle traffic problems is in their economic interests. Better traffic flow is good for business, and reduces business costs. Providing a parking space at work, for example, costs £300 per year in maintenance costs alone. For a company wanting to expand its operations, reducing parking requirements can provide valuable new development space.

Companies have also found that commuter plans are popular with staff, can reduce stress and improve morale. The company can save money even on car allowances. It is one of those equations where, if everyone works together--employer, employee, city and county councils--everyone can win.

The benefits to Nottingham are potentially huge. Typical commuter plans aim to cut car commuting in each company by 30 per cent. If successful, that will transform our city, and it could transform other cities likewise. Given such potential and value for money, we might have thought that the Government would be a little more

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enthusiastic about commuter plans, encouraging councils and companies all over Britain to join, but it has taken the ground-breaking work of Labour local authorities, especially Nottingham city council and Nottinghamshire county council, to bring this project to the attention of people everywhere.

Nottinghamshire county council is co-ordinating an information exchange network to encourage similar schemes elsewhere. Good for it, but perhaps the Government and the Department of Transport could take on that role. I call on the Minister to give his public support to the Nottingham green commuter plans and to issue guidance, further to policy planning guidance 13 and PPG 6, to local authorities to encourage them to work with local businesses to reduce traffic and to review their parking policies.

As Graham Chapman, leader of Nottingham city council, has told me:

Green commuter plans are but one part of the jigsaw we need to create to answer modern traffic problems.

Just the other week, we had the warm words and complacency, unfortunately, of the Government's Green Paper on transport. Why were commuter plans not convincingly expounded, backed and promoted in that document? Instead, Government policies continue to make it more and more difficult to achieve progress. Rail privatisation, like bus deregulation before it, is producing a disintegrated service, when we need an integrated transport system. That is hampering the efforts of employers to negotiate bulk discounts for public transport fares for their employees to help to tackle the problem.

Sadly, the Government have been free with their empty congratulations for Nottingham and its commuter plans. It is now time to replace that with serious action to spread awareness of that success throughout the country and to spread that best practice. Nottingham has led on green commuter plans, and the Government--if not this one, then the next--should encourage councils everywhere to build on Nottingham's example.

12.44 pm

The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris): I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on having secured the debate, and especially on his ingenuity in using Back-Bench Members' time for his departmental interests--always a clever technique if hon. Members can get away with it, and amply demonstrated today.

Of course I share the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for green commuter plans. I have met all the local political leaders in Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, and know them well--the chief officers, too. I have much respect for what they do. I never imagined that this was territory for party political nit-picking--although, if we are going to pick some nits, let me just say that, if the hon. Gentleman has concerns about the complacency of the Government's Green Paper on transport policy, it is in extraordinary contrast to the utter debacle that represents Labour transport policy.

When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and I pointed out that the draft document that became available to us amounted to a bombshell for every

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person shopping in every supermarket in Britain, that it was profoundly anti-car and anti-motorist, and that it was laced throughout with liberal helpings of sheer politics of envy, what did the Opposition do but instantly withdraw the document, deny any authorship, claim that it had all been a put-up job by Transport 2000--with which they are normally only too keen to be seen to be associated--and say vaguely that something was due and that it would be exciting?

As ever with the Opposition, they were saying nothing. If we are in the business of trading mild insults on an otherwise perfectly harmonious occasion such as this, nothing characterises Labour transport policy so much as the utter absence of commitment to any principle in relation to transport fiscal policy or planning policy.

I note, incidentally, an extraordinary proposition advanced by the hon. Gentleman. He alleges that regional offices are "currently undemocratic". I imagine that currently undemocratic implies, in his fevered imagination, that, at some point, they should become democratic. That is an extraordinary proposition, when one reflects on the fact that Government offices are a sensible arrangement whereby leading Departments of State combine their efforts in a region to ensure that optimum efficiencies are obtained from the scarce taxpayer resources that are devoted to that region. Government offices have been spectacularly successful throughout the country.

During the course of my duties, I have had the advantage of being able to visit all the regions, and I have noticed the extent to which all the regional offices--incidentally, the Government office for the east midlands is no exception--have become genuine champions of the regions they represent. That has been of huge value.

Conservative Members will wish to consider more carefully the cloud no bigger than a man's hand that is soon to cover the hon. Gentleman's sky of a democratic regional office. When we do, the proposition will be instantly withdrawn, like all the other propositions he advances.

The hon. Gentleman always uses the expression, "outgoing Government". It gives me great pleasure to assure him that the next Government will continue to promote the policies that Conservative Members believe are appropriate for dealing with urban congestion and pollution issues--largely because the Government will be composed of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I am clear that they at least have an urban congestion strategy that is coherent, manageable and politically practical, and that avoids all the dangers and pitfalls into which the Labour party has so timely fallen. Those pitfalls involve presenting itself as anti-car, anti-motorist and, frankly, anti-anything but the brown rice and open-toed sandal society with which the Labour party so often appears to associate itself.

Having said that, I shall return to the theme of the green commuter plan for Nottingham, in which there is a great deal that is admirable and worth supporting. As the hon. Gentleman knows when he talks about practical support beyond exhortation, the traditional means available to us are the transport supplementary grant and the allocation of resources under that heading, which takes place on the

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basis of the transport policy plans presented to us each year. We in turn offer guidance to local authorities on how they may prepare those plans.

As the hon. Gentleman's learning curve is beginning to accelerate--some years behind, admittedly, but there is much joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, and I have great hopes for him--he will know that the way in which we allocate the resources is currently centred on the package approach to local transport planning. In all seriousness, he and I both recognise that that is how we must proceed if we want to develop a coherent local strategy.

As the hon. Gentleman correctly said, the key to the package approach is to take an environmentally sensitive attitude not only towards the role of the local authority and the other traditional components of the strategy, such as the bus operators and other transport undertakings, but towards that of businesses and individuals. We regard local authorities not only as transport authorities but as large employers and large presences in towns and cities. As such, they are members of the partnership that the hon. Gentleman correctly identifies as one that we need to engender locally.

I suggest that the practical way forward is to try to incorporate more of the idea of producing a holistic green commuter plan into our approach to our transport policy plan guidance in future, and, when we determine our expenditure priorities, to allocate whatever absolute level of resources there may be more in accordance with that basis.

When I spoke to all the local authorities in the regional consultative committees that meet every year--I have just completed this year's round--I told them that we tended to address two basic issues. The first is the absolute quantum of money. There, as ever, we are driven by the macro-economic requirements of the national economy. The second is what priority we give within the resources that we may have available.

In that connection, there is no doubt that the shift of emphasis towards the package approach over the past four years has been hugely helpful in achieving better value for the money we have.

Mr. Allen rose--

Mr. Norris: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I continue, because, so consumed was I by his unique theory of the management of local regional government, that I have not yet started the speech that I intended to make.

Mr. Allen rose--

Mr. Norris: As it is the hon. Gentleman's debate, however, if he wishes to intervene he may by all means do so.

Mr. Allen: The Minister is typically generous, but he was also typically inaccurate in his opening remarks. I shall pass quickly over the first five minutes of his speech, and talk about Nottingham's green commuter plan.

As the Government may have one more round of TPPs and discussions with local authorities about their local transport spending, will the Minister consider issuing

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some sort of guidance, or even making it clear in a public speech that he would like local authorities to consider the concept of green commuter plans, and will look with favour on their bids should those include something similar to the Nottingham example?

Mr. Norris: We have just finalised the TPP guidance for the financial year 1997-98, which will soon be issued to local authorities so that they can get the flavour of what we shall look for in that settlement. As the hon. Gentleman said, that is likely to follow on before the expiry of this Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman will see that, in that guidance, we have continued to accent our interest in developing the package approach. Many of the themes he has mentioned are contained within the guidance--rightly so, because the bones that he has identified are the right ones. The recent Green Paper acknowledged that traffic growth, and its impact on congestion and environmental pollution, is fundamental to the way in which we shall develop our strategies in future.

There is growing concern about the effect on people's health, the environment and the economy of the uncontrolled use of the car. People are more likely to take responsible transport decisions if they are well informed and know more about the full implications of those decisions. Recognising that, several local authorities are operating schemes to raise public awareness of the impact of travel, both on congestion and on the environment. The Travelwise scheme first developed by Hertfordshire is an excellent example of how to develop just such a policy, and there have also been examples from other counties.

The responses to the national debate showed that the effect on air quality is the environmental impact that causes most concern. The Green Paper sets out the Government's strategy for reducing pollution from transport, taking account of the national air quality strategy that will be published as part of the implementation of the Environment Act 1995.

The strategy will set the policy framework for tackling pollution from all sources, including transport. It will set standards for the pollutants of most concern, and a time frame for meeting those standards, and will set out the measures that will be needed. The Government will play their part at national level--for example, by continuing to press for tighter vehicle emissions limits and enforcement measures.

It is recognised that, as we earlier agreed, there will be a key role for local authorities, companies and individuals. We believe that commuter plans such as that developed by Nottingham should be welcomed, and could have an important contribution to make. What I like about Nottingham's green commuter plan is the fact that it is a citywide initiative involving the county, the city, Nottingham Green Partnership, Transport 2000 and several other local organisations that have already shown a willingness to be involved.

The scheme has two cardinal benefits--benefit for the organisations involved, and benefit for the environment. In discussing the matter with people such as Adrian Jones and Lynn Sloman of Transport 2000, who came to see me to discuss the Nottingham plan before its publication, one of the aspects that I have always found attractive is the

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fact that the organisations and their employees are the ones who benefit from a healthier life style, and from the reduction in the stress associated with car commuting.

Businesses, as distinct from their employees, also benefit from the release of land for more productive use, and, depending on the level of subsidy paid to car users and in rental for car parking spaces, can make significant financial savings that can be reallocated to the promotion of more sustainable forms of transport. Last but not least, the green commuter plans demonstrate by practical example how a greener transport strategy can be implemented by a major employer, whether that be a local authority or a private sector firm.

As the hon. Member said, there are obvious gains for the environment, too. The eventual outcome of the plan in Nottingham will be less traffic in the city centre, and a reduction not only in congestion and in traffic emissions but, as a by-product, in accidents. The publicised support for public transport cannot but be welcomed, and if green commuter plans help to release road space, allowing for extensions to existing bus and cycle networks, that will be a bonus.

The model that Nottingham has produced is one that many other organisations can follow. It is immensely gratifying that organisations such as Boots, Nottingham university and the Queen's medical centre have also been encouraged to provide green commuter plans. The overall target of such plans is to cut car commuting journeys by 30 per cent. in the initial three-year period, and experience from elsewhere, such as that in the Netherlands, shows that that can be done.

The feat will not be easy, but if we can develop model plans from the Netherlands and the United States of America, and think in terms of the central role of a staff travel co-ordinator--in corporate terms, that is essential, to keep the profile of such schemes high in people's minds--it ought to be achievable. With all political sparring to one side, I genuinely believe that, if the plan works, it will be a major achievement for Nottingham, and I look forward to congratulating the city.

Not only are all the partners in Nottingham involved in the scheme, but one of the other important local partners, the Government office for the east midlands, is also prepared to involve itself in a green commuter plan. It has well-managed on-site parking that is restricted to essential users, and has adopted the principle of the pool car. It now has flexible working hours and showering and changing facilities. The Department is prepared to offer interest-free cycle loans as an incentive to take up cycling. All that is laudable.

The Department of Transport's headquarters at Great Minster house is also developing a green commuter plan, which time prevents me from expanding upon in detail. I heartily endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North on the importance of developing a similar plan for the House of Commons. I am not entirely sure whether it is appropriate for me to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I commend the remarks of the hon. Gentleman to you. Perhaps the House authorities will look at the Hansard report of the debate, and consider how they can develop a plan that will allow this place to provide a blueprint for good practice among major employers.

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