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11.58 am

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): I welcome some of the remarks made by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), although it is a little intimidating to follow both him and my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) who have such knowledge of planning law. I speak not as a planning expert, but as someone who represents an area that knows all too well the difficulties of balancing the need for housing with the need to preserve our environment.

I am from Warrington, which is a growing town, as it has been for many years since the area was designated for new town development. The borough consists of the old central areas of Warrington and large areas of new town development. Sizeable parts of my constituency are built on former greenfield sites. As the area has developed, we have become ever more conscious of the need to protect the green belt around it and open spaces within it.

We have experienced considerable transport problems as the area has grown, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough said, the situation was not helped by the previous Government's policy of allowing much out-of-town retail development. We are currently fighting to preserve Peel hall, one of the last open spaces in north Warrington, from development.

Because of my background, I am well aware that the Bill seeks to tackle a serious problem. The organisation of future development must be addressed, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on his efforts to raise the issue. However, I have serious concerns about whether his Bill--he seemed almost to discuss a different one --will achieve its ends.

I wonder whether the Bill is necessary in the current climate. In large part, it seems to duplicate the guidance in PPG3, which local authorities are required to follow. The carefully constructed strategy laid out in PPG3 was subject to wide consultation and has the support of many local authorities, including mine. It requires authorities to produce housing capacity studies and to release land for housing sequentially, with brownfield sites taking precedence over greenfield sites. In doing so, authorities must have regard to the capacity studies.

The policy was carefully drawn up and has wide support. Because some of the Bill's requirements are so imprecise, it would confuse rather than aid the process.

Mr. Steen: I thank the hon. Lady for what she has said. As a Back-Bench Member, I received £200 towards the

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drafting of the Bill. It is not drafted marvellously. I was helped by the Council for the Protection of Rural England, which did a tremendous job, and the Clerk of the House and my research assistant, but the Bill is not perfect. I do not have at my disposal the battery of advisers and draftsmen available to the Minister, and I am perfectly prepared to make necessary amendments in Committee. With the Minister's help, I am sure that we can get the Bill right.

Helen Jones: I hope to touch on some points that concern me, but I fully accept the difficulty of drawing up a private Member's Bill without the necessary resources.

The national land use database supports the policy in PPG3 and is the most comprehensive audit of previously developed land and buildings ever undertaken. The Bill seems to duplicate it. Local authorities are required to recycle existing buildings as well as land--a major policy change that the Government supported by the hon. Gentleman never sought to make. Authorities are also required to review land already allocated for housing to ensure that it meets the new approach set out in PPG3.

In addition to duplicating much existing provision, the Bill has not benefited from extensive consultation with local authorities. I accept that the hon. Gentleman could not undertake such consultation himself, but the Bill is flawed. Clause 1 requires a study of the capacity of previously developed land. However, the Bill contains no assumption about housing density. That seems to set authorities an impossible task. They cannot decide capacity without taking a decision on density. The Bill could make matters worse than they would be under PPG3, which gives local authorities guidance on avoiding inefficient development and seeks more high-density housing.

Under the Bill as drafted, local authorities would make their own assumptions on housing density, so any capacity study that they produced would be much more likely to be challenged on appeal. That would result in more uncertainty and greater cost for everyone involved in the planning process, including council taxpayers.

The clause sets no time limit for the study. Nor does it require authorities to take account of future sources of previously developed land. The capacity study would have no guidance on building density and we do not know how far ahead the provisions would apply. That sets local authorities an impossible task.

There is no requirement that the study should relate to regional or strategic planning processes. That is an essential requirement for areas such as the north-west, where cities such as Liverpool or Manchester are losing population, while other areas, such as Warrington, are gaining it. Unless there is a strategic planning process to underpin those assumptions, we cannot do what I and many Members representing north-west constituencies believe to be essential: concentrate future building in those cities, while avoiding extra building on greenfield areas outside towns such as Warrington and the market towns of Cheshire, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred. We must do that if we are serious about using brownfield sites.

An authority-by-authority approach with no provision for regional strategic planning is likely to be seriously damaging to areas such as the one that I represent. Furthermore, it will not address the problem of the decline of the inner cities.

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The clause includes no provision for the required audit to relate to the national land use database. There is no definition of expressions such as "under-used" and "under-utilised". The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) spoke of the possibility that the provisions might apply to mansions in which one couple were rattling about. I know that that is not what the Bill intends, but that is what it could be taken to mean. We need to get those terms right, otherwise we shall impose on local authorities a duty that is impossible for them to fulfil. We would set up a system that would generate constant disagreement and possible legal challenges.

The requirement to publish details of the ownership of all land included in the audit is not sustainable. Other hon. Members have already referred to the possible costs involved. There would be a serious problem in tracing the ownership of some small parcels of land that are not registered. I am dealing with a problem in my constituency where there is a serious difficulty in finding out who owns a particular piece of land.

All local authorities encounter that problem from time to time. However, under the Bill, they would have to spend much time and money tracing ownership of what might be extremely small parcels of land. If they did not do so, they would be in breach of their statutory duty, because there is no concept of reasonableness--of a local authority making reasonable inquiries. If the Bill is to work, that must be included. The provision, as drafted, is not a sensible way to develop the planning process, nor would it be a sensible use of the time of local authorities.

Clause 7 requires that development applications that have

That provision duplicates the guidance set out in PPG12; local authorities are required to take that matter into account both in preparing their development plan and when deciding on applications. However, the provision goes further. It requires that an authority shall approve an application only if

    it is satisfied that the existing infrastructure . . . will be able to meet the demands made upon it by the proposed development; or . . . is capable of being altered to meet those demands without detriment to the quality of life of existing residents or damage to the natural beauty and amenity of the area.

What does that mean?

The hon. Member for Totnes rightly said that, in some cases, development could improve the quality of life--for example, by bringing new pupils into village schools and new customers into village shops--but it is at least arguable that any increase in traffic is detrimental to people's quality of life, so without provision for public transport, no planning application for development could be granted because car use would automatically increase.

It is also arguable that the natural beauty and amenity of an area is damaged by any building. I originally come from Chester. I am sure that the Celtic inhabitants thought that the natural beauty of the place was seriously damaged when the Romans built a wall round it. I am sure that the mediaeval inhabitants thought that they would prefer to have a nice open space in the middle of Chester than to have a great cathedral plonked on it. I exaggerate, but in response to any application it could be argued that damage

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would be caused. We end up with a clause that means very little and would be unenforceable. I fear that local authorities would become embroiled in endless appeals and endless litigation.

In short, the Bill, as drafted, is well intentioned but does not give us a sensible planning policy. It will add nothing to the Government's policy of encouraging development on brownfield sites, and would lead to confusion where there should be clarity. As a result, it might actually damage our prospects of preserving green spaces. It imposes duties on local authorities that are so ill-defined that they cannot be fulfilled, and could lead to further appeals and a substantial amount of litigation. It may, of course, enrich lawyers. As an ex-lawyer, I have nothing against enriching lawyers, but I cannot see that the Bill will help to preserve our environment, and it will need substantial amendment if it is to be effective. In the absence of such amendment, I cannot urge my colleagues to support it.

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