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Division No. 153
[1.59 am


Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Alexander, Douglas
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)
Austin, John
Ballard, Mrs Jackie
Betts, Clive
Blears, Ms Hazel
Boateng, Paul
Bradshaw, Ben
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)
Browne, Desmond
Burstow, Paul
Caborn, Richard
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)
Campbell-Savours, Dale
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Clapham, Michael
Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Clelland, David
Coffey, Ms Ann
Connarty, Michael
Cotter, Brian
Crausby, David
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Davidson, Ian
Dawson, Hilton
Dobbin, Jim
Donohoe, Brian H
Dowd, Jim
Drown, Ms Julia
Ennis, Jeff
Etherington, Bill
Foster, Don (Bath)
Foulkes, George
George, Andrew (St Ives)
George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Godsiff, Roger
Hain, Peter
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Hanson, David
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Heppell, John
Hill, Keith
Howarth, Alan (Newport E)
Hoyle, Lindsay
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Humble, Mrs Joan
Hutton, John
Iddon, Dr Brian
Ingram, Adam
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Jenkins, Brian
Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)
Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Kumar, Dr Ashok
Livsey, Richard
McAllion, John
McAvoy, Thomas
McCabe, Steve
McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)
McGrady, Eddie
McGuire, Mrs Anne
McNulty, Tony
McWilliam, John
Marek, Dr John
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Michael, Alun
Miller, Andrew
Moonie, Dr Lewis
Moore, Michael
Mountford, Kali
Mudie, George
Mullin, Chris
Norris, Dan
O'Hara, Eddie
Öpik, Lembit
Palmer, Dr Nick
Pickthall, Colin
Pike, Peter L
Pope, Greg
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Primarolo, Dawn
Purchase, Ken
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Rendel, David
Rooker, Jeff
Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Ryan, Ms Joan
Sanders, Adrian
Savidge, Malcolm
Sheerman, Barry
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Singh, Marsha
Skinner, Dennis
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Smith, Miss Geraldine
(Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Spellar, John
Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Stott, Roger
Stringer, Graham
Stunell, Andrew
Sutcliffe, Gerry
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Vaz, Keith
Vis, Dr Rudi
Wareing, Robert N
Watts, David
Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Wise, Audrey
Wood, Mike
Worthington, Tony
Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. David Jamieson and
Mr. John McFall.


Beggs, Roy
Forsythe, Clifford
Hunter, Andrew
Maginnis, Ken
Paisley, Rev Ian
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Taylor, Rt Hon John D (Strangford)
Trimble, Rt Hon David

Tellers for the Noes:

Rev. Martin Smyth and
Mr. William Thompson.

Question accordingly agreed to.

4 Feb 1998 : Column 1197

Bill read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.

4 Feb 1998 : Column 1198

Green Belt (Sutton Coldfield)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Dowd.]

2.10 am

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield) rose--

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance and ruling on whether this Adjournment debate should be allowed to proceed. The right hon. Member who has been awarded the privilege of this debate is none other than the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who is the official spokesperson for the Opposition. He is a Front-Bench spokesman, and at any time he can put his views at the Dispatch Box. In fact, he did so fairly recently.

The Opposition day motion on 27 January 1998 was on the protection of the countryside. Although the right hon. Gentleman did not make a speech in that debate, he intervened and mentioned the item that is under discussion tonight, so he had the opportunity to pursue this matter just over a week ago.

Will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as the defender and guardian of the rights of Back Benchers, rule that this debate is inappropriate? We saw earlier the spectacle of a Front-Bench spokesman riding on the back of a Back Bencher's amendment. What is to prevent every Front-Bench spokesman, or even every Minister, from lining up and shutting out Back Benchers?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): I understand the hon. Gentleman's point of order. There is no bar to Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen speaking from the Back Benches in an Adjournment debate. That is normal, and it is entirely up to them whether they speak on constituency interests or on other subjects.

Sir Norman Fowler: I deeply resent what the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) has just said. I also deeply resent the fact that he gave me no notice of his point of order. I am responding to what the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning said in a debate on regional development agencies in which I intervened. He told me that I should raise this matter as a constituency issue. He will confirm that.

The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning (Mr. Richard Caborn): That is absolutely correct.

Sir Norman Fowler: I hope that the hon. Member for Tamworth will accept that I have a right, just as he does, to speak for my constituents, and that is precisely what I intend to do.

I first raised the issue of the green belt in Sutton Coldfield in an Adjournment debate in May 1996. I pointed out the danger to the green belt from a proposed industrial development near Minworth in my constituency. That site on the edge of Sutton Coldfield and Birmingham is 150 acres of agricultural land in active use. There is nothing marginal about that land: it is undoubted agricultural land, and undoubted green-belt land.

4 Feb 1998 : Column 1199

In May 1996, during the previous Parliament, I asked for the application to develop that land to be called in, and for a public inquiry to be held. I wanted a proper determination of the case and of green-belt policy generally. I said that, if the Minworth site were developed, the future of the green-belt policy would be in severe doubt. I am glad to say that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), the former Secretary of State for the Environment, called in that application, and a public inquiry was duly held.

It is the events that have occurred since then that I want to draw to the House's attention. What has happened sounds a warning for everyone who is interested in the future of the green belt and the protection of the countryside.

I shall summarise the history of the scheme. It centres on the efforts of the West Midlands development agency--which seeks to encourage inward investment--and the Department of Trade and Industry to persuade Philips to site a micro-electronics factory in this country. Philips was known to be examining the prospects of such a factory, and a joint effort was made to bring it to the west midlands.

There is no doubt that Philips was the intended user of the site. That was made clear to me in discussions in which I engaged in 1996 with both officials and Ministers in the Department of Trade and Industry. The question was not that; the question was where the factory should go.

It was at that point that Birmingham city council came into the story. The council owned the majority of the Minworth site. If it could sell the site, it would make a substantial capital gain--probably £30 million or £40 million. The council thus had a direct financial interest in developing the land, and all the evidence suggests that it used its power to ensure that the Minworth site was chosen. It was in a strong position: it not only owned the site, but was the planning authority.

At the time of my earlier Adjournment debate, there were two possible sites. One was owned by P and O, and one by Birmingham city council. The councillors in Sutton Coldfield, local residents and I were opposed to both. The council, however, used all its power to ensure that the site that it owned was chosen.

According to the evidence given at the public inquiry, the council, as the local planning authority, made no serious attempt to carry out a comprehensive comparative evaluation of the two sites, and consistently applied double standards in favour of its own land. Nevertheless, even the council was unable to force the proposal through without a public inquiry once my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State had acted.

We proceeded to the public inquiry. The West Midlands development agency was represented by a Queen's counsel and a legal team. P and O was represented by a QC and a legal team. Birmingham city council was represented by counsel and a legal team. PowerGen, which was putting forward an alternative site, was represented by a QC and a legal team.

The only group that had no legal representation were the residents of Sutton Coldfield. The residents, the councillors and I appeared without the benefit of those

4 Feb 1998 : Column 1200

expert legal teams. Nevertheless, when it came to the inspector's recommendation to the Secretary of State, he recommended that planning permission be refused on both sites where permission was being sought. In normal circumstances, that would have meant that the 150-acre site was saved.

The inspector heard all the arguments about the green belt. I pay tribute to the thoroughness of the inquiry. He heard all the arguments about the damage to the countryside; indeed, he said that the development would lead to considerable and severe harm to the green belt in physical, visual and functional terms. He also considered all the arguments that were advanced about the employment consequences of a possible development--although it must be said that I regard some of those claims as totally fanciful.

There was one argument, however, that even the inspector was unable to examine. Although the whole aim was to attract Philips to the site, the company itself refused to allow its name to be attached to the application. That meant that no questions could be asked about the siting of the factory or, indeed, about the urgency of the issue. Government guidance is that any green-belt development should not be approved other than in exceptional circumstances. Without the end user, it was impossible to tell whether such circumstances applied. Philips was therefore unwilling to become involved in the controversy surrounding the site.

That decision had one other profound effect, because, to all intents and purposes, the application became speculative. There was no named end user. The duty on the inspector was to decide whether, exceptionally, a factory of the kind proposed should be sited in the green belt.

The inspector's finding was unequivocal. Both proposals, the one by P and O and that by the West Midlands development agency were rejected. He said that they would have resulted in a substantial loss of the best and most versatile agricultural land. That independent inspector stated:

In normal circumstances, that would have been the end of the matter. Accordingly, the inspector recommended that, in both cases, planning permission should be refused. The inspector, Mr. C. H. Johnson, presented his report to my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for the Environment in April 1997 in the midst of the election campaign. Entirely correctly, it was left until the outcome of the election was known for the new Secretary of State to make a decision.

I now come to one of the most disturbing parts of the whole story. Although the report was with Ministers from the day the new Government took office, no statement was made about it in the Session to the end of July. The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning, who will reply to the debate, announced the Government's decision not when Parliament was sitting but a week into the summer recess, on Friday 7 August. That must rank as one of the crudest attempts we have known to manipulate the press and to slip out what was recognised as a controversial statement. I have contempt for those tactics.

It was not just the crude attempt to fix that is so objectionable. The Minister's timing meant more than that. It meant that much of the 42-day period in which

4 Feb 1998 : Column 1201

residents had to consider an appeal to the courts for a judicial review occurred in the middle of the holiday period, when it was difficult to get people together. No one should have worried, because the potential cost of raising a challenge in the courts for a judicial review, which would not in any event have reversed the position, is prohibitive. If we could not afford legal advice in the first place, it was unlikely that we could have afforded the cost of seeking a judicial review.

That is the story of how permission was granted for the development of the site and how it was announced. It is not a story from which any of the major players can take pride. At times, there was a shabby and discreditable effort to override the will of local people, and the views that have been expressed on the matter are clear. One of my constituents, whom I saw at the weekend, has written to me. He states:

My constituent made a further point:

    "Birmingham claims that the main reason for supporting Peddimore is the economic diversification it would bring--and yet we learnt from PowerGen at the Public Inquiry that it was first offered to Rover/BMW (bidding against Hams Hall)."

It was not for Micro Electronics.

The Warwickshire branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England stated:

There are many other letters of the same sort, but I do not have time to quote from them.

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