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Business Park (Audenshaw and Denton)

1.30 pm

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I am grateful to have the opportunity to debate the proposals by North West Water and the developers Arrowcroft to remove a treasured piece of green space in my constituency and turn it into a business park.

I am delighted to see the new Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), in his place. I congratulate him on his well-deserved promotion. To some extent, I also commiserate with him because I understand that in planning matters Ministers have a semi-judicial function, and I accept that he is not going to be able to say all that much at the end of the debate because of that function. Anyway, I am very grateful that he is here to listen.

My constituents and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) would not understand it if I did not take up this opportunity to press their total abhorrence of the proposed scheme. My right hon. Friend would very much have liked to be here but, unfortunately, other parliamentary duties made that impossible for him. He has been steadily paging me all morning, insisting that I put on the record the fact that he is as strongly opposed to the scheme now as he was 10 years ago when it was first proposed.

The area of land concerned is on the east side of Greater Manchester, between my right hon. Friend's Gorton constituency and mine, Denton and Reddish, in which a little of the land lies. In the 1800s, the old city of Manchester cut off one of the small streams flowing down to the Irwell and built two small reservoirs on it. Water was taken from the then Ashton canal into the top reservoir during the wet period of the winter, and was stored to provide fresh water to the people of Manchester.

Some 50 years later, in about 1885, the authorities got parliamentary approval to build five further reservoirs above the lower reservoirs, as they are now called. In fact, only three were built—very fine reservoirs, which are still there. The authorities then decided that there was more demand for water than could be coped with by expanding the Audenshaw reservoirs, and went up to the Lake district to get water from the area around Thirlmere and Ullswater. On the site of the two proposed reservoirs that were never built, first Denton golf club and then Fairfield golf club—uniquely, Fairfield is also a sailing club—grew up on the land, and they have been very successful ever since. That is a brief history of the site.

In addition to the two golf clubs, a large number of people come out from Gorton, Audenshaw, Reddish and Denton to walk through the site. It is a very important lung to the people living in that area. It is also a bit of countryside—something that I find very difficult to get across to developers and other people. The nature of the reservoirs' construction is such that someone walking through the area can look up and see first the grass walls of the reservoir, and beyond that the Pennine hills. They have a feeling that they are out in the countryside, yet they are a relatively short distance from the centre of Manchester. For local people, the area has been a lifeline for years and years.

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Very sadly, just over 10 years ago, North West Water, aided and abetted by Tameside council, decided that the site could be turned into a business park. It came forward with a planning application, but much to my delight and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton, the then Secretary of State felt that the scheme was so large that he would have to call it in and hold a proper public inquiry into it. When it came to the public inquiry, the whole thing collapsed because it was not possible to come up with a viable road system to get to the site. On the scale that was being discussed, it would not have been possible to get traffic in or out of the site, especially if a business park were constructed.

Those in my constituency know the area as "the reservoirs" or "the stonewalls". The developers at first decided that they would call the site Kingswater; more recently, having abandoned that name, they call it Waterside Park. It is an insult to local people to come up with a name like that. Having failed at the first public inquiry, Tameside council decided that it would put a business park into its unitary development plan. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton and I spent a lot of time trying to convince the inspector at that inquiry that the council should take the area out of the plan and earmark it as public open or recreational space. We managed to convince the inspector that if a business park was to be built, it was essential that an alternative golf course be found. On that basis, he said that the scheme could go ahead, but when the council came forward with a development proposal, it could not come up with an alternative golf course. It is not possible to find the land for one in that area. If it could find the land, the business park could be built there.

We persuaded the Secretary of State that he should call the development in, and when the proposals were brought forward, my right hon. Friend and I went to the inquiry and put all the arguments to the inspector. Eventually, the case found its way on to the Deputy Prime Minister's desk, who said very firmly that the scheme should not go ahead. He gave seven major reasons why it should not go ahead. I believe that those seven reasons are still valid. Unfortunately, developers decided to challenge my right hon. Friend's reasons, and on three of them the court found that he needed to reconsider his position. During the past few months, a whole series of representations have been made suggesting that the Deputy Prime Minister got it right—or that he got it wrong. I have to say that the vast majority of my constituents have written to me saying that the Deputy Prime Minister got it spot on when he turned down the original proposal. I want to emphasise that.

I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister will take a decision fairly soon. We want the matter settled as soon as possible. It is possible for him to decide to hold a further public inquiry, but I think that far too much has been said about the matter already. An awful lot of trees have been cut down for the paperwork on it, and it would be much simpler if he confirmed his decision to refuse approval.

However, there is another aspect to the issue. I have continually pleaded with North West Water that it should understand the strength of local feeling against it and the damage that pushing ahead with the scheme does to the company's own image. North West Water is

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one of the major sponsors of the Commonwealth games. People will enjoy themselves at the games in July, but their importance to Manchester is that they will help to secure major regeneration of the city's east side. On the east side, the emphasis will be on new sports facilities: the stadium, the baths and the cycling facilities. It seems absolutely crazy for North West Water to want credit for helping to make those sports facilities work in the east side of Manchester while simultaneously working to wreck two golf courses.

In effect, North West Water saying is that one golf course will close and the other will have buildings put on it so that the whole course will have to be remodelled. That seems absolutely crazy. I would argue that it is in North West Water's interest to say, even at this late stage, that it is going to scrap the scheme and get credit for encouraging the development of sporting facilities in the east side of Manchester. It is interesting that Sport England has made very strong objections to the loss of the golf course.

Fairfield golf and sailing club has what might be described as a working-class membership. It is in no way elitist, but is a place that welcomes local people from Gorton, Audenshaw, Denton and Reddish. It co-operates with Wright Robinson school, which is a sports academy. The school overlooks the facilities, and many of the youngsters are encouraged to play on the golf course, which is a facility for the area.

My pleas are that the Deputy Prime Minister make his decision quickly and enforces it, and that, even if it does not happen before the Commonwealth games, North West Water accepts that it should not push ahead with the scheme but go for good publicity and abandon it.

Let me deal with some of the issues. We will not just lose a golf course but an open space that is, as I said, a lung for the whole of the east of Manchester, including the people in Gorton, Audenshaw, Denton and Reddish. People can walk out from narrow terraced houses that have only yards, not gardens, and walk through the site which has mature hedgerows, a huge bird population and attractive wild flowers. It is a place where adults can walk and kids can mess about. That does not always please the golf club, but it is important in urban landscapes to have places where kids can mess about, because they can do an awful lot of damage if they mess about on the wall outside some elderly person's dwelling. They might upset elderly people, with the result that there is conflict between youngsters and the elderly. However, if they can go out to "the reservoirs" and "the stonewalls", kids can be kids and mess about and enjoy themselves without upsetting anyone, apart from occasional minor upset to people on the golf course. Therefore, it is an important area for kids.

It is also an important area for walking dogs. There is an absolute lack of open space in east Manchester. Another aspect to emphasise is that the facilities are free. Increasingly, people in urban areas must pay for facilities. It is important that people on low incomes are able to take their kids out or put them in the pram and push them through the area at no cost.

The lower reservoirs are a major fishing site. Manchester education committee offers water sports on one of the lower reservoirs, and the Fairfield golf and sailing club used to have sailing facilities on one of the

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others. It is sad that, because the issue has gone on for more than 10 years, it has been difficult for Fairfield golf and sailing club to invest in improving its clubhouse and reinstating its sailing facilities. Another strong reason for making the decision quickly is so that such facilities can be reinvigorated. The open space and recreation facilities are very important.

People say that 3,000 jobs would be created. I am the last person to stop jobs coming to Tameside. However, in the 10 years that we have been arguing about the site, Tameside has had an extremely successful record in attracting inward investment. The council has managed to attract new industry to several brownfield sites. So, although it was claimed 10 years ago that we would not be able to bring unemployment down unless we had the development, unemployment has come down.

Several other sites have become available for development, most at prices that industry can afford rather than at a price that supports the sort of expensive business park development that was planned. The Hyde group is now developing a business park on the old Stratton and Henshaw site in my constituency. I could go through a list of other sites that have been or could be developed. Reeb has presented a very good site for shopping in the centre of Denton. If the same imagination had been shown by the council, a project could have been put together for a business park if necessary, but the jobs argument does not stack up.

Turning to traffic, the M60 and M67 meet at the edge of the site and the M67 ends at a roundabout. That is unsatisfactory for a motorway and there is huge traffic congestion at that point. To build a business park with 3,000 jobs, to which many people will have to commute from south Manchester instead of walking to work locally, will make the traffic worse at that point. There is talk about building a flyover or making some other arrangement, but local people are sick and tired of the traffic problems.

I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister will be happy with about 10 minutes in which to respond, so perhaps I may take a few more minutes without upsetting him. I want to finish by emphasising that the Government's policy in recent years has been brilliant. They have understood the need to regenerate urban areas, to bring new developments to brownfield sites, to reinvigorate old town centres and to reduce car dependency. In PPG3, which covers housing, and the new draft regional guidance for the north-west, the emphasis is on previously developed land.

The proposed business park flies totally in the face of that concept. Manchester has a successful business park. Manchester science park is close to the academic excellence of the university, and it is on brownfield land that needed redevelopment and has good transport links. We do not want a repetition of the 1980s and the failed idea that people must be attracted to sites by offering them green fields and trees. That is not necessary. What is important is that developments have good transport and communications links.

Developers have claimed that people can use Denton station, which is a joke. It has one train, in one direction, one day a week. That is sad and I have often tried to think what could be done to reinvigorate that station, but unfortunately the railway line goes in the wrong direction and the station is in the wrong place. To claim

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that Denton station will have any significance for the proposed business park is nonsense. Two bus routes pass the site, but at a considerable distance from where the developers want to build. They are now talking about the possibility of setting up a shuttle service to the site, but the shuttle service can be introduced only if the 3,000 jobs materialise and most people are cynical about that.

In terms of Government policy, the proposal is a disaster. The Secretary of State was spot on when he refused permission the first time. I greatly regret that the developers did not accept that and thought they could go to judicial review. The whole planning system is under review at the moment. One of the worst aspects of the present planning system is the way in which people rush to judicial review and then complain that the planning system is slow and cumbersome. I hope that the developers will now accept that the role of the Secretary of State is to implement Government policy, and that that policy is to have development on brownfield sites and to reinvigorate old town centres, and not to allow developments such as the proposed business park, which would simply encourage car dependency and destroy a very important lung for people in my constituency.

I shall listen with interest to my hon. Friend the Minister. I accept that what he can say today is limited, but in Denton, Audenshaw, Reddish and Gorton, there will be cheers when the Deputy Prime Minister confirms his decision that the development should not go ahead.

1.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty) : I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) for his kind words at the beginning of his speech, and I congratulate him on securing the debate and raising the issue of the proposed development, which, as he says, has a long history. I thank him for putting his concerns and those of our right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) on the record.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish said, there is little that I can say about the application for the proposed development of Waterside park, but it might be helpful if I explain the development proposal and place the current planning application into an historical context.

Waterside park is a large greenfield site of some 90 hectares adjacent to the M66 at Denton. It is owned by United Utilities, formerly North West Water. Its development for business purposes was first proposed in 1990 under the name Kingswater park. The proposal proved controversial to say the least, and was called in by the then Secretary of State. An inquiry was arranged but the application was withdrawn shortly before the inquiry was due to take place.

The local planning authority, Tameside metropolitan borough council, took forward the idea for a business park on the Denton site, and developed proposals for the land as part of its unitary development plan. Again, the proposal was strongly opposed by local people.

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There was a thorough debate about the proposals at the UDP inquiry, where views both for and against the proposals were expressed. The UDP inspector recommended that the policy be retained. The council accepted his recommendation that the land be allocated for business use, and accordingly adopted the UDP in September 1996.

Under present proposals, the business park will have 74,000 sq m of B1 business space, with ancillary shops, pubs, leisure facilities and some 200 homes, and will involve the relocation of an existing golf club and the creation of new public open space. The development is now called Waterside park, as my hon. Friend knows. The Secretary of State decided to call in the planning application in February 1999, so that he could consider the possible implications for open space provision in the Greater Manchester area. Considerable concern had been expressed about the possible loss of the golf club: a green lung in an urbanised area.

A public inquiry was held in December 1999, and views both for and against the proposal were expressed. The inspector reported in May 2000 and recommended that planning permission be granted subject to conditions. The Secretary of State did not agree with the recommendation, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, and he set out his reasons for that in his letter of 30 November 2000. Among his concerns were the loss of the golf club and the fact that half the proposed housing would not be on previously developed land, commonly known as brownfield land. National planning policy for new housing has a preference for using previously developed sites, and he therefore refused planning permission.

The applicant launched a High Court appeal against the Secretary of State's decision. The grounds of challenge were wide ranging, and the Secretary of State, having taken legal advice, submitted to judgment in respect of two of the grounds for the challenge: the point about environmental assessments and procedures, and the point about housing densities. The decision of the High Court means that the Secretary of State has to redetermine his decision about Waterside park.

My hon. Friend knows that the Secretary of State has to play a quasi-judicial role in determining planning cases that come before him; he alluded to that in his speech. Not only does the Secretary of State have to be impartial, he also has to be seen to be acting impartially. My hon. Friend will therefore understand that I cannot discuss the merits of the case in advance of the Secretary of State's new decision.

As part of the redetermination procedure, officials have written to parties at the inquiry inviting comments on the two issues in which the Secretary of State submitted to judgment. That is a requirement under planning legislation. We have also invited views on two issues that have arisen because the world has moved on since the initial decision. Those issues are the North West Development Agency's search for strategic sites in the region, and the emerging new regional planning guidance for the north-west.

The deadline for the submission of new comments was 14 June. We are now in the middle of considering all comments, both from those at the inquiry and other interested parties. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish will be interested to know that we

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received 133 responses from interested parties and local residents. I thank him for forwarding the letters that he received from his constituents.

One of the issues that the Secretary of State will have to consider in the light of the representations is whether the inquiry needs to be reopened to explore the issues further, or whether the information available is sufficient for him to reach a decision. My hon. Friend will understand that it would be premature to make a decision on that point, but there does not seem to have been any great pressure to reopen the inquiry. It would also be premature to comment on the representations that we have received, but I assure him that all representations—both those in favour and those against the proposals—will be taken into account before the Secretary of State makes a new decision.

My hon. Friend outlined his wish for developments in three key areas: first, the decision; secondly, the speed of the decision and, thirdly, matters relating to North West Water. As he knows, I can say absolutely nothing about the nature of the decisions. I hope, through my good offices and those of the Deputy Prime Minister, to ensure that the decision is made as swiftly as is practicable, but I cannot offer him any timetable. It is not for me to exhort North West Water—or United Utilities, as it is now—about its corporate responsibility, advertisement plan, business strategy for the future or any other such matter. Such aspects are of more concern to United Utilities.

Andrew Bennett : May I press my hon. Friend about a further inquiry? My constituents consider that the

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situation is unfair in that United Utilities—or North West Water, whatever it is called—can afford to have barristers present at such a inquiry, whereas it is not possible for them to raise the money that would be needed to hire legal representation. I hope that he will take that into account and that he will accept that we need a speedy decision, not another inquiry.

Mr. McNulty : I thank my hon. Friend for that response. I repeat, there does not seem to be any growing pressure to reopen the inquiry, but that remains an option to be considered by the Secretary of State. I thank my hon. Friend for drawing the matter to the attention of the House. He has put his case in his usual robust and forceful way on behalf of his constituents. I happily accept the reasons why our right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton cannot be with us today, but I know that he, too, has a long-standing interest in the application.

My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish can be assured that the Secretary of State will take note of his views on the matter. My right hon. Friend will reach a decision on the planning merits of the proposed development as soon as possible and will take full cognisance of all representations that have material planning concerns at their core. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish that I shall take as much interest in issues in the north-west as I will in those in London or elsewhere in the country.

Question put and agreed to.

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