The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): National planning policy guidance already encourages local planning authorities to plan positively for small-scale enterprises in rural areas. In preparing the rural White Paper, we are considering whether that guidance might be strengthened or clarified, consistent with the principles of sustainable development.
Mr. Blizzard: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. If we want a prosperous and sustainable countryside, there must be more opportunities for people to work there, rather than having to go off to towns and cities to work. If farmers are to diversify successfully, as we wish them to do under the rural development programme and rural enterprise schemes, planning guidance must encourage that, and not stand in the way.
Will my right hon. Friend visit St. Peter's brewery in my constituency? It is an outstanding example of rural enterprise, which produces an excellent product and is at one with its rural setting. However, when it was first established, it was in the face of planning, and not encouraged by planning. That example is an instance of
Mr. Meacher: I am always willing to consider visiting my hon. Friends' constituencies--especially those that contain breweries. The performance and innovation unit report on rural areas suggested that planning was a barrier to diversification. However, analysis of responses to that report shows that some local planning authorities need better to interpret and implement national planning policies to encourage development to meet local needs. However, we are examining the matter and my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is holding a seminar at the end of the month, which local stakeholders will attend, to see how the planning system can be improved to further assist farm diversification.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): The right hon. Gentleman referred to sustainable development. I am sure that greater clarity is needed in the planning process. As the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) said, there is now a crisis in agriculture and in rural areas generally. I therefore urge the right hon. Gentleman to make it clear to planning authorities that there should be a presumption in favour of sustainable small and medium- sized developments.
Mr. Meacher: I am pleased to give that assurance. Policy planning guidance note 7 already gives strong encouragement to local planning authorities to provide for commercial development in their development plans, noting that many commercial and light manufacturing activities are acceptable in rural areas. The note encourages the re-use and adaptation of rural buildings and allows authorities to discriminate in favour of commercial--as opposed to residential--use. Such matters will certainly be raised in the seminar that I mentioned and the Government wish to take the matter further.
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I urge my right hon. Friend to give the strongest possible lead to local authorities on implementing sustainable employment schemes in rural areas. As he knows, some of us represent rural constituencies that were massively neglected by the previous Administration and rural Conservative Members for decades. The legacy of poverty, isolation and despair is something to behold and the Government need to act.
Mr. Meacher: We are introducing a rural White Paper soon--later this year--because we realise that rural regeneration, the breakdown of services, social exclusion and rural governance are all problems that were allowed to deteriorate badly under the Conservative Administrations of the past two decades. We believe that the White Paper will redress those problems in a visionary and practical way.
Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman should not believe all that he reads in newspapers. Let me make it clear that, under the Labour Government, the area of green belt has extended considerably, and building on green belt, which was so noticeable under the previous Administration, has finally been reversed.
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already made his position clear in his proposed changes to draft regional planning guidance--RPG9. He expects that London will continue to achieve more than 80 per cent. of residential development on previously developed land and he proposes that local authorities in the south-east outside London should seek to achieve at least 60 per cent. of all new housing development on previously developed land.
Mr. Flight: Will the Minister reconsider the Government's figures for West Sussex, which he will be aware cannot be achieved other than on the basis of 60 per cent. greenfield and 40 per cent brownfield, because there is insufficient brownfield land available?
Mr. Raynsford: No, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. I shall remind him of the figures. Under the existing structure plan--the one that is in force, not the new arrangements--the provision in West Sussex as estimated by the south-east regional planning committee, Serplan, is 3,212 homes per year on average, compared with illustrative figures that we sent out to the chairman of Serplan a couple of weeks ago of 2,930 homes per year. There is no question that we shall impose an unreasonable additional burden on West Sussex--that simply is not true and it is wrong to pretend that it is.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): Does my hon. Friend agree that, especially in the south-east, affordability is a key issue in planning future housing development? Does he also agree that a region having housing stock that is out of reach of most of the people living in that region is bad for the future of those people?
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Is the Minister aware that almost all the land outside urban settlements in my constituency is covered by an existing green belt designation? My constituents derive no comfort from the philosophy expounded by his colleagues, that building on existing green belt can be made up by redesignating green belt elsewhere. Will not that sort of thinking lead to the whole of the south-east, especially the areas just outside London, being concreted over?
Mr. Raynsford: No. As a former Minister, the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge the importance of the evidence, which clearly shows that the Government's target of 60 per cent. of new housing development in the south-east being on brownfield sites can be met. Those figures are confirmed by the national land use database figures, which show that the south-east contains 5,460 hectares of empty brownfield land that is suitable for housing development. It is important that development focuses on brownfield sites, and the Government are absolutely clear about their commitment to achieving that.