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Mr. Hugh Bayley (City of York): The hon. Lady says that some people will benefit from the scheme, and my constituents would do so. The centre of York is clogged with traffic, for which it was not designed, and that creates environmental hazards both for people breathing the air and for the historic buildings damaged by pollution. Does she agree that the local planning authority has to weigh the benefits to those living in the centre of York against the benefits and disbenefits to those living in the suburbs? That is the authority's responsibility. Does she recall that I wrote to her to suggest that we went jointly to meet the planning officer at the council to resolve those matters last autumn, but she chose not to do so?

Miss McIntosh: Unfortunately, the planning officer chose to leave the council before a meeting could be arranged. As my constituents' views were not being regarded by City of York council, I decided that it was best for me to proceed alone. It was regrettable that the planning officer left before a final decision had been taken.

On the point about consultation, it had been brought to my attention that an expensive consultation exercise was taking place, as I told the ombudsman, and I have evidence to prove that those most directly affected by the proposal were not even consulted, which is regrettable.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent way in which she is pursuing issues in that part of her constituency that for 10 years was a part of my constituency. Does she agree that the constituents of the hon. Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley) and those in the centre of York will be served by a park-and-ride scheme wherever it is sited? The issue is not whether there should be a scheme, but that it should be sited not on green-belt land at Rawcliffe but on the huge Cliften Moor industrial and commercial estate, where there is popular support for it from her residents, my residents, and, I dare say, the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken the words out of my mouth. I think that we all agree about the need for a park-and-ride scheme. In the more rural parts of the City of York area, we share concern about the apparent lack of understanding of rural sites, and the need to preserve the green belt if there are alternative sites. I agree that Cliften Moor is an adequate alternative, but it appears not to have been considered, or even to have been rejected, by the council.

Mr. Bayley: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Miss McIntosh: I am reluctant to do so, as I am running out of time and I want to allow the Minister enough time to respond.

Mr. Bayley: I simply want to offer to co-operate on a three-way basis.

Miss McIntosh: Perhaps some guidance today from the Minister on a three-party basis would be helpful.

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There is great concern in the Vale of York about rumours of proposed housing developments--a new town between Thirsk and Ripon, about 8,000 houses between Green Hammerton and Whixley, and a new development of homes on the outskirts of Bedale have all been mooted. All those rumours incite great alarm in the local population, and put pressure on access to facilities such as water and sewerage, as well as increasing road traffic and congestion in what is increasingly a commuter area.

The developments would certainly damage the local quality of life if they proceeded. Can the Government clarify the matter, and put my constituents' minds at rest as to how the rumours have developed, and the exact procedures for allowing such developments?

The final issue concerns planning and education policy, again in the city of York--a shared interest with the hon. Member for City of York. The council proposes to merge Canon Lee and Queen Anne schools, creating a split-site school with one mile between sites. York local education authority has a surplus of school places, which it hopes to tackle through the merger, but the council is not forthcoming about its future long-term education policy.

The proposed merger is not uniformly popular, and is not fair to Canon Lee school, which is successful, with an above-average GCSE pass rate. Parents of children at the school are concerned about the removal of parental choice and the lowering of educational standards. Any savings from the merger would be lost, through added transport costs between the schools and the duplication of teaching aids. The split site and the journeys between the two also raise safety problems for the children in question. Parents are voting with their feet and sending their children to schools outside the local education authority.

Those examples, from pylons to the incinerator, the proposed park-and-ride scheme, the possible new town housing developments and the school merger, show that planning decisions and procedures in the Vale of York are at best muddled and confused, and at worst possibly erroneous and irregular under the law. They show a complete lack of regard--a certain contempt--for the countryside and the way of rural life as we know it in the Vale of York. From the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry down to the City of York council, those planning decisions show a Government who are out of control and unaccountable, like their party.

The Labour party said that it would protect green-belt and green-field sites, but then proposed to build pylons, new houses and park-and-ride schemes all over them. The trust that the electorate placed in the Government to look after the countryside and protect green-belt and green-field sites was misplaced. The electors have been severely let down, and the Government should apologise and reverse the planning decisions.

1.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on securing the debate on the important issue of planning procedures as they affect her constituency. I regret that the brief time available for my reply means that I shall be unable to deal with all the issues that she raised, but I shall try to address the main points of principle.

Planning procedures can be complex, and always require careful handling by the responsible authorities, be they Secretaries of State or local planning authorities.

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Indeed, I must take care not to prejudice the outcome of planning cases in which I may become involved, should they be referred to the Department, or to interfere in established procedures for considering complaints about or challenges to planning decisions. The hon. Lady must understand the essential constraints on what I can say.

The Vale of York is an area of scenic countryside which I know well, and I have enjoyed my visits to it. The Government are committed not only to improving the quality of the urban environment, but to conserving and enhancing the quality of the countryside in Yorkshire and everywhere else. We stressed that in our policy document "Planning for Communities of the Future", in which we rightly say that the way to save our countryside is to make our towns and cities more attractive places in which to live and work. It is not a question of country versus town, but of making sensible and balanced decisions that recognise the importance and the value of both.

We are also committed to local and democratic decision making. With a few notable exceptions, planning decisions in local areas are best made locally. We do not intend to interfere in that unless it is necessary to do so. I hope that the hon. Lady, whose constituency includes the historic site of the battle of Marston moor, will not encourage an over-mighty Government to interfere too much in the rights of local communities, or the same spirit that many years ago led representatives of this House to fight for their rights might raise its head again.

I am aware that the hon. Lady's constituency incorporates parts of several local planning authority areas, and that the detailed practices of the authorities may vary from place to place. Let me describe broadly the operation of the planning system in the Vale of York.

Procedurally, the local planning authorities must follow statutory Acts, regulations and directions, but the first and essential point is that planning decisions in the Vale of York must take account of national policy and advice. Our advice is set out in planning policy guidance notes and departmental circulars.

At the regional level, in March 1996 the previous Government published regional planning guidance for what was then the Yorkshire and Humberside region. Work to revise it is under way in the region. The hon. Lady will be aware of our recently stated intention to enhance regional planning guidance with much more extensive regional involvement in preparation.

Miss McIntosh: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford: I shall, but the hon. Lady will be aware that time is limited.

Miss McIntosh: Can the Minister assure hon. Members that green-belt sites should not be built on?

Mr. Raynsford: I can assure the hon. Lady that planning policy guidance in PPG II has always made it clear that there is a presumption against development in the green belt, and that presumption remains absolutely the same. The principle that development should take place in the green belt only in exceptional circumstances has been part of planning policy for some years.

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I remind the hon. Lady that, when in power, the Conservative party varied that policy, and allowed developments in the green belt on a number of occasions when it was thought that there were overriding reasons for doing so. It would be wrong to take a party view on the matter. The presumption is that there should not be development in the green belt, except in special and overriding circumstances.

We are committed to a plan-led system for making decisions about planning applications. The guideline is that a planning decision must accord with the development plan, unless material considerations suggest otherwise. The development plan is therefore paramount. Local planning authorities must recognise that in making decisions about planning applications.

In the Vale of York, the development plan that sets out strategic policy is the North Yorkshire county structure plan. It was adopted in 1980, and has been altered three times since then. I understand that discussions are now under way about a further review of the plan, so that it can be brought up to date jointly by the four authorities involved: North Yorkshire county council, City of York council, and the two national park authorities with structure planning responsibilities in North Yorkshire.

Structure plans are rarely concerned with specific sites, which are identified in local plans. The coverage of local plans in the Vale of York is incomplete, but detailed districtwide local plans are being prepared. In the Hambleton district, objections have been considered at a public inquiry. The inspector reported in July last year, and I have been informed that the district council is about to publish proposed modifications.

In Harrogate district, a public local inquiry is looking into objections to the draft local plan. In York, I understand that the city council is soon to issue a draft local plan that will cover the revised city area for the first time. It will be placed on deposit, which will allow anyone to object to its proposals.

There is national advice and statutory direction about what constitutes a departure from local plans, but it is essentially for local planning authorities to decide whether particular planning applications justify departure. The Secretary of State has powers to intervene in any planning application without its being referred to him, but they are rarely used. Most decisions are best taken locally, by the responsible authorities.

That procedural detail leads me back to the statutory Acts and regulations to which planning decision makers must adhere in the Vale of York. I am sure that the hon. Lady does not want me to go into every detail of the matters that we are discussing today, but I should say that members of local planning authorities are elected to represent the interests of the whole community in planning matters.

Local opposition to or support for a proposal is not in itself a ground for refusing or for granting permission, unless there are valid substantiated planning reasons for doing so. When determining planning applications, authorities must take account of relevant views on planning matters, including those expressed by local residents and third parties.

The hon. Lady mentioned the northern gateway park-and-ride scheme. I am aware of the City of York's proposal, and we have received a great deal of correspondence about it. I understand that it is usually

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referred to as the York northern gateway proposal, a description which applies to a successful bid to the previous Administration by City of York council for support under the capital challenge programme.

I should stress that the availability of Government funding for the scheme has always been conditional on planning consent being granted. Therefore, there is no question of that influencing whether consent will be given. If there are concerns, they must be considered locally. The matter is for the council to decide, following citywide consultation. If local residents are still concerned, they may consider a challenge in the courts or assessment by the local government ombudsman. I have recently replied to correspondence from the hon. Lady on that matter.

I know about the proposals for a temporary animal cremator at Rufforth, and I understand that the City of York council resolved to grant permission in 1997. However, the local government ombudsman has decided that there was maladministration, because the council did not refer the planning application to the Secretary of State.

The council reconsidered the issue last week, and decided to refuse planning consent for a revised application and rescinded the previous resolution. The applicants may consider an appeal to the Secretary of State, so I cannot comment on the matter. I hope that the hon. Lady will acknowledge that the local authority appears to have responded positively to the views of the ombudsman.

The proposed new settlement in the Thirsk and Ripon area is merely one of a number of development scenarios suggested by consultants, not by the Government, and certainly not by the Labour party. The consultants are helping the planning conference of local authorities in what is now Yorkshire and the Humber region on the review of regional planning guidance for the region.

The proposal has no official backing from the local authority planning conference or from my Department. It is simply an issue which will be considered by the conference of local authorities in developing regional guidance. It is proper that they should review options and decide, in the light of their experience of the region the most appropriate solution.

The hon. Lady gave a great deal of time in her speech to the North Yorkshire power line. Unfortunately, that is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and it would not be appropriate for me to make detailed comments on it, other than to say that my right hon. Friend looked carefully at the conclusions of the two major public inquiries--six and a half years of consideration--which led to the decision.

The decision was based on the views of independent inspectors who had considered the matter carefully. The full reasons for my right hon. Friend's decision are contained in the decision letter sent by her to the company, and it would not be right for me to comment further on the issue.

The hon. Lady has made allegations about my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry. I regret that she chose to make them in a debate in which he was not present and was not able to answer. I regret the use--

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