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3 Feb 1999 : Column 996


[Relevant documents: Tenth Report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, Session 1997-98, on Housing (HC 495-I) and the Government's Response thereto (Cm 4080).]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): I advise the House that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.13 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): I beg to move,

I make no apologies for the fact that this will be the fourth debate in a little over a year in which the House has had the opportunity to discuss planning issues, primarily the on-going destruction of the green belt, the erosion of green-field sites and the threat to our countryside. Our alarm, shared by millions of people, is at the fact that the Government refuse to act to stop the constant erosion of the green belt and green-field sites and the continued concreting over of land which, once lost, can never be recovered. That is environmental vandalism of the worst kind, and the Government seem to be paralysed into doing nothing about it.

Under this Government, the pattern has become all too familiar. The Secretary of State approves the concreting over of vast tracts of green-field land and building on vast tracts of green belt. He orders county councils to plan for more new homes, overrules his inspectors if they disagree with him and uses the courts to back up his bully-boy tactics. In the light of the Government's behaviour and record, I question whether they understand what the green belt is and why it was put in place.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burns: No, I wish to make a little more progress. If the hon. Gentleman still wishes to intervene later, I will consider it.

For the benefit of the Minister, I should briefly explain that modern green-belt policy was established in the 1950s and is enshrined in planning policy guidance note 2. The fundamental aim of the green-belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. I remind Ministers that the key quality of the green belt is its permanence, and that that should be altered only in exceptional circumstances.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): Has my hon. Friend noticed that, in the case of Stevenage, the Government have allowed the building of more than 10,000 homes on the green belt and then pretended that they have protected the green belt by extending it somewhere else where it does not provide protection

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against urban sprawl? That is sleight of hand such has never been seen before, but this Government seem to have become adept at it.

Mr. Burns: With my right hon. Friend's distinguished record as Secretary of State for the Environment, one would expect him to be able to see through at a moment's glance the flimsy and veiled excuses that the Government use. I assure him that, later in my speech, Stevenage will not escape my notice--nor will West Sussex, Newcastle and Sutton Coldfield.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford) rose--

Mr. Sheerman rose--

Mr. Burns: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), because I promised to do so.

Mr. Sheerman: May I jog the hon. Gentleman's memory? Those of us who have been in the House some time remember the destruction of the planning procedures under the previous Government. We knew that every appeal that was turned down by local councillors would be allowed by the previous Government, because they believed that market forces should rule and, every time, green-belt land was built on. The destruction of our countryside happened under the previous Administration.

Mr. Burns: I bitterly regret giving way to the hon. Gentleman, because of the utter claptrap that he has just given the House. I remind him that it was under the Conservative Government that we doubled the size of the green belt, leaving it almost the size of the Principality of Wales.

Mr. Raynsford: As the hon. Gentleman mentioned Stevenage in response to an intervention by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), would he care to confirm that, in 1994, when that right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State for the Environment, 23 hectares of green-belt land in Stevenage were released for housing with the knowledge and approval of the previous Government?

Hon. Members: Oh!

Mr. Gummer rose--

Mr. Burns: I do not wish to get involved in an internal brawl, but I shall give way to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Gummer: I wonder whether my hon. Friend would remind the Minister, who has had the chance to refresh his memory on the point, that not only was all the release of land in Stevenage under this Government backed by the Labour council there--so was every release of land in

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Stevenage in the past 20 years. The Minister has had 20 civil servants to find his one point, but I remember the issue clearly because the council was so bad.

Mr. Burns: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that point and I shall put the Minister's mind at rest by confirming that I shall return to the subject of Stevenage later.

Ministers do not seem to understand the issue and that is one of the main reasons for the way in which they have behaved in the past 20 months.

The Minister for the Environment displayed his ignorance of planning policy guidance note 2 when he said:

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman is not here, but I must explain to Ministers that it is not perfectly reasonable to intervene in the green belt--on the contrary, what is happening up and down the country is totally wrong.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): Does my hon. Friend agree that we are talking not about Stevenage but about the land next to it, between Stevenage, Hitchin and Letchworth in my constituency? The Government will create a sprawling conurbation in north Hertfordshire that the people do not want and have campaigned against. It is a disgrace. To talk about 23 hectares as though it is 800 is a laugh.

Mr. Burns: My hon. Friend makes his point tellingly. He probably knows that his concerns are shared not only by Conservatives in his county but by Labour councillors.

The Minister for the Environment should consider his Department's PPG2 and learn that the purposes of the green belt are to prevent urban sprawl, to prevent towns from coalescing, to protect historic towns and to encourage urban regeneration. When we were in government, we lived up to that policy. The green belt doubled in size in our time and we left in place a designated green-belt area the size of Wales.

What have this Government done? They have certainly lived up to the Deputy Prime Minister's proud boast, which may have been a Freudian slip, when he said:

He and his party have certainly lived up to that boast.

The Deputy Prime Minister has given the go-ahead for 10,000 new homes on green-belt land near Stevenage. In the face of opposition from the Conservatives, a Liberal Democrat-Labour pact dragooned the proposal through Hertfordshire county council, despite the opposition of the Labour leader on North Hertfordshire district council, who said:

Is anyone surprised? He continued:

    "The Government claims to be committed to protecting the environment and regeneration of urban areas and now we have them supporting plans to rape 2,000 acres of greenbelt."

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    That is a damning indictment of new Labour actions by a new Labour council leader.

Barbara Follett (Stevenage) rose--

Mr. Burns: The Secretary of State approved 2,500 more homes in the green belt outside Newcastle, despite there being 4,000 empty homes in one part of the city alone. That decision was greeted by the off-message hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins) with the reflection that it would accelerate the decline of inner-city areas such as his constituency.

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