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Green Belt (Cambridge)

1.29 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I am delighted to have this short opportunity to raise an issue of huge importance to my constituents, which is causing them great worry. I am delighted to be joined by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who shares with me the periphery of Cambridge city, and therefore the green belt that surrounds it. If there is an opportunity for him to catch your eye, Mr. Cran, I am more than content for that to be the case—although we are both interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

What is the green belt? The phrase is often used, and it is clear from many previous debates that hon. Members from all parties have confused the green belt with green fields. Green fields are an essential part of the green belt, but not all green fields are in the green belt. I am specifically talking about the green belt, which is a designated area. In this case, we are considering the one around Cambridge, which was one of the first designated green belts.

I shall quote from planning policy guidance note 2—and before the Minister chides me, I acknowledge that I know that that dates back to the previous Government. It says:

It then lists five purposes of including land in the green belt:

obviously that applies particularly to Cambridge—

I would add another factor that is widely recognised. The green belt also protects city centres from becoming derelict as the sprawl spreads forever outwards.

If a green belt is to achieve all that, its integrity has to be largely sacrosanct. We hear a great deal from the Government about increasing the size of the green belt, but in this instance—if I can be forgiven for making this remark—size does not matter. It is not the size of the green belt that matters, but its location. If the inside of a green belt is constantly nibbled away at to allow more housing, but the outside is spread, one can brag about increasing the size of the green belt by so many per cent. or thousands of acres or whatever it may be. However, that protects nothing. The sprawl and the absorption of towns and villages into the city are not stopped, and none of the objectives laid out in PPG2 is achieved. I would contend that any concept of development on green belt land has to be the extreme last resort. Otherwise we might as well pack up, go home and forget the whole idea of green belts.

If we consider the regional planning guidance for east Anglia as it applies to Cambridgeshire, which was published by the Government 18 months ago, we see

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that they decided that some 4,000 houses per annum should be built in the county during the period of the structure plan to 2016. That is a rate roughly twice that put forward by the county council and other local authorities to the regional planning guidance review. Nevertheless, the Government made their decision. Of that 4,000, 2,800 per annum were to be built in the Cambridge sub-region.

The guidance under policy 2, "Meeting development needs", lists the

Policy 4 goes on to identify the location of housing in the cities, in other towns, in towns with good transport and

but all that is qualified by the phrase:

In other words, all the grand ideas have to be put to one side for the Cambridge sub-region.

The RPG continues:

It then lists several effects of such policies and states:

I shall return to that point in a moment.

Paragraph 5.14 states:

this is the critical point—

In publishing the RPG, the Government cast aside all the policies that apply everywhere else in the country, where building on the green belt is the last resort—policies followed by successive Governments—and changed building on the green belt from the last resort to the second priority—second only to building in Cambridge's built-up area. That is a matter of huge concern to local people.

Policy 24 refers to the need for a green belt review and says that it

As a result of the RPG, the county council set out on its own consultation as to how to meet the housing obligations imposed on it by the Government. It concluded that the housing distribution for Cambridge city would be 6,500 houses in the built-up part and 6,000 on the edge, subject to review of the green belt boundary. That is a very large number of houses.

For those who are not aware of the fact, I should explain that the area of South Cambridgeshire district council—as opposed to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire, which is different—totally surrounds Cambridge city. That area

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is to receive 20,000 new houses, as opposed to 12,500 in the city. Of that 20,000, 6,000 will be in a new settlement, 5,500 will be in market towns and rural centres, 4,100 elsewhere in the sub-region, and 2,400—another indicative figure—will be within the built-up area of Cambridge. Over the years, some of what is actually in the district of South Cambridgeshire has come to be considered part of Cambridge city.

The county says that a

everyone would say, "Thank goodness for that"—and that

That is the nub of the issue. It is a concern of local people and is exacerbated by policy P9/3c, which refers to the location and phasing of development land to be released from the green belt:

and two areas in my hon. Friend's constituency: near Addenbrooke's hospital, and Clay farm and Trumpington.

The policy goes on to state:

which is in my hon. Friend's constituency,

which we share. It also says:

That is the area that is of most concern to me.

The document goes on to refer to preparing a master plan for the eastern sector as a whole,

The land to the east of Cambridge airport is agricultural. For the purposes of today's debate we can ignore its value in terms of the current industrial viability of agriculture. There are two villages, Teversham and Fulbourn, and further north the village of Fen Ditton, all of which are separated from Cambridge city by a very short distance. A single field is the green barrier between Teversham and what most people think of as Cambridge.

The eastern side of Cambridge is under a huge threat from the Liberal-controlled city council, which has clearly set out its stall to invade south-east Cambridgeshire with thousands of houses. It has produced a study of housing capacity that suggests 2,500 homes on the North Works, which is not highly controversial; 6,500 homes on the airport, which is certainly controversial; 2,000 homes in Teversham; 2,500 homes in north Fulbourn; and 750 homes in Fulbourn. Those are swingeing increases to relatively small villages.

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More interestingly, because Cambridge airport is a highly commercial, viable business operation, it will be impossible for it to move, although its owners have said that they are prepared to move, for most of the planned period. A development of 6,500 homes on the airport cannot begin until the last two or three years of the structure plan period. In other words, to meet the targets that are being put forward, building in places such as Teversham, Fulbourn and Cherry Hinton will have to start very quickly. In a debate about a year ago, the now Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, who was the Minister's predecessor in his present job, said:

I strongly disagree, because once one starts making significant changes to greenbelt boundaries one has seriously impinged on their principal purpose.

The threats to my constituency are clear. They come both from the Liberal-controlled city council, which is determined to build all over land to the east of Cambridge city, and from the policies applied solely to Cambridge and Cambridgeshire by the present Government. Local Labour party members have now decided to oppose the eastward expansion of Cambridge city, but they have only the Government's regional planning guidance to blame.

I want to conclude by trying to be constructive. The numbers proposed for building on the North Works, which is part of the Marshall's airport infrastructure, are largely non-controversial. There is an element of green belt, but in general, that is not controversial. There is land on the northern fringe of Cambridge in my constituency that has already been removed from the green belt. I accept that, having been removed, it has to be built on. There is also a large swathe of land, some of which is in Cambridge city and some in South Cambridgeshire, on the southern side of the A14 Cambridge bypass, such as the largely redundant railway sidings at Chesterton, the sewage works and what was known as the machinery sale ground. Those are vast areas capable of taking many thousands of houses.

There are problems with land assembly when different owners are involved, but that should not be allowed to prevent its development from being given priority. There is outstanding land, but we have inexplicably been told that because land was allocated in the previous plan, it cannot be reallocated in the current plan, despite the fact that it has not been built on. That is absurd. We have been through the previous plan and have managed to survive, one way or another, without houses on the land allocated in that plan. We are planning not for the past, but for the future. I hope that the Government will allow any land that has been scheduled for development but has not yet been developed to be counted as part of the land that can fulfil future need for housing—those 2,800 extra houses a year to which I referred earlier.

I suspect that few people want the airport to be developed, but I believe that most would reluctantly accept that one day that will probably happen. It is one of the least worse options for development. However, that could happen only at the very end of the current structure plan period, so would make little or no

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contribution to satisfying housing need at that time. It would also require a review of the green belt, so I do not stand four-square against any review of the green belt.

However, that is where I part company with the draft structure plan. There should be no review of the green belt east of the airfield. I want to say loudly and clearly on behalf of my constituents that a line in the sand must be drawn on Airport way—the road that runs alongside Cambridge airport. If we can protect Fulbourn and Teversham—only a field protects them—that line in the sand must be drawn and adhered to. That part of the draft structure plan must be rejected. The only reason for that proposal in the plan is the Government's decision to make building on the green belt the second priority to building within the city, in contrast with its policies for the remainder of the country.

Today is not the time to address wider issues concerning the location of the new settlement, nor my belief that many smaller villages that have been excluded from the plan could have been allowed some growth—10 per cent., for example—over the period of the plan. That would have been absorbable and might have allowed some village facilities such as pubs or post offices to keep going. However, not a brick should be laid on the green belt until every piece of brownfield land in Cambridge has not only been allocated but has had houses built on it. It is no use having land effectively frozen out of the system because a developer or owner will not build on it, and then forcing people to accept houses on green fields.

Finally, I want to say a few words about the overall pressures on Cambridge. It is a huge privilege for me, and for my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire, to represent an area as dynamic as the Cambridge sub-region. It is at the heart of so much of Britain's present and future enterprise, particularly biotechnology—but that brings infrastructure and development problems. Cambridge is a magnet, and there is a danger that it could destroy its own attraction. Many parts of the country would welcome a fraction of the development being attracted to Cambridge and the enterprises that spawn it. Successive Governments have tried financial measures to attract investment elsewhere, but that has been largely unsuccessful.

I shall finish with a suggestion. The principal magnet is Cambridge university, so the Government could encourage the university to develop satellite activities elsewhere in the United Kingdom and shift the magnet, or—to mix my metaphors—create an outer ring of satellite magnets. We know that the Minister for Science has close contacts with Cambridge university and I urge him and the Government to work with the university to try to find new ways of attracting some development away from Cambridge. I fear that if we do not do so, this debate will be repeated until Cambridgeshire is concreted over. None of us wants that.

1.49 pm

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) on the timeliness of the debate, and on how he expressed his views. I would not depart from a word of what he said. I share completely

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the view that, by setting out a sequence in RPG6, the Government initiated a search for sites to develop in the green belt that went far beyond the purposes of the green belt. In Cambridge, green belts were primarily intended to preserve the special character of the city and its setting, and to prevent coalescence of settlements.

My hon. Friend and I could talk at length on this subject. He set out the position on Fulbourn and Teversham, and I could do the same in relation to Stapleford, the Shelfords and other villages. However, I want to ensure that the Minister refers not only to the RPG, but specifically to its policy 24 on the greenbelt review. I want him to make it clear that the purposes of the green belt include the special character of Cambridge city, and that the urban extensions and the amount of building proposed in the structure plan that followed the RPG—anything up to 16,000 homes in the green belt—is utterly inconsistent with the maintenance of the special character of Cambridge city.

On that basis, there is everything to be said for the Minister taking the opportunity to set out the Government's commitment to the purposes of the green belt, and especially to policy 24 in the RPG, before the structure plan inquiry in the autumn.

1.51 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty) : I congratulate the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) on securing the debate, and I also congratulate the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). The green belt is an essential issue and planning tool, for all the reasons given by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, especially in areas as successful as Cambridge. The matter is clearly of concern to both of them.

I am slightly troubled as to why the hon. Gentleman did not afford himself the opportunity to comment on the structure plan at the draft stage. That means that he cannot attend the examination in public of the issues on the draft. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire will attend in relation to new settlements, but I exhort the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire to put a note in before 30 July so that he, too, can have a word about green belts.

Mr. Lansley : The Minister will know that I made comments on the green belt, and that they were exactly the same as those made by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire. Therefore I wanted to be invited to the green belt discussion, and wrote to the county council asking to be invited.

Mr. McNulty : I was not aware that the hon. Gentleman had done that, so my exhortation was unnecessary. I knew that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire was to attend in relation to new settlements, but clearly the examination in public is the next step in the process.

I take on board much of what both hon. Gentlemen said. The panel that considered the RPG for the plan in 1994 was concerned about the effect of the green belt on sustainable development patterns, and recommended that a review of the green belt should be initiated as a matter of urgency. From the outset, the essence of PPG2

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has remained the same. I had all the relevant points nicely set out in my speech, but I shall not bother with them, given that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire cited them all. The structure plan and the RPG need to refer back to PPG2. The green belt is vital, not least in this case.

I half accept what the hon. Gentleman said about size not being everything. The green belt has increased since 1997 by about 30,000 hectares. In many cases, that has served to consolidate what is already there. We start from PPG2. It is not for me, a humble graduate of the university of Liverpool, to tell the university of Cambridge what to do in terms of satellites, magnets or anything else, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) will pass on the hon. Gentleman's exhortations for the university to branch out further than the city itself.

The tension in a growing urban area, the maintenance of the urban fringe, sustainability, taking on growth and the consolidation of green belt are all part of the review process. Such reviews as are carried out deal in the main with that tension. I do not agree that any review is 100 per cent. bound to be detrimental to the green belt. A review may lead to some adjustment to its boundaries and even some additions—that possibility is not precluded during the process of the examination in public—and will consolidate the green belt around Cambridge for the immediate future and beyond.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire is right about the sustainable pattern of development. RPG6 sets out a sequential approach to meet Cambridge's development plan, in which the first preference is for development in the built-up area of Cambridge and the second preference for development on the periphery, subject to a review of the green belt. I would not understand that sequential hierarchy so negatively; the urban fringe and the interface between the urban fringe and the green belt and the built-up area are naturally the areas for development.

We need a review so that any infringement beyond the fringe is as little detrimental as possible to the green belt around Cambridge. That is a necessary exercise, and does not question the notion of a green belt for Cambridge. It requires that the review of the green belt should start from a vision of the city and the qualities that need safeguarding and consider how far green belt purposes are being fulfilled. When land meets the purposes of the green belt, including the proposals for use of land consistent with PPG2, it should remain in that context. The review will consider the suitability of sites for development when they could be released without significant detriment to green belt purposes. That is a crucial factor. The aim is not to encroach on to the green belt simply because of Cambridge's glorious success; any encroachment will occur in the least detrimental way, or without significant detriment.

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The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire will not expect me to cover in detail the locations mentioned in P9/3c, or whatever the specific reference was. That is the purpose of the examination in public.

Mr. Paice : I know that the Minister is short of time, but I want to pick him up on the business of the examination in public. He chided me for not having objected to the draft structure plan. Does that mean that he is saying that remarks made in the House are less significant than those made during the examination in public? Most members of the public would be horrified to think that contributions made by their representatives in Parliament were less significant than something that takes place in a shire hall. I hope that what I have said will be taken into consideration by the inquiry.

Mr. McNulty : I do not doubt that it will. If I chided the hon. Gentleman, I did so gently—no more than that. The EIP is the process through which the issues raised on the draft structure plan are to be discussed in detail. I am sure that those involved in the EIP will see the record of this debate, but it is disingenuous to suggest that anything that an hon. Member says in this Chamber is, all of a sudden, way above any public policy position already established. That thought was at the core of what the hon. Gentleman said.

I am sure that he and the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire will influence the course of debate at the EIP in whatever way they can, without necessarily being present at it. Given what they have said in today's debate, I do not doubt that they are both serious in their commitment to the green belt and to the development enhancement of south Cambridgeshire and the city of Cambridge.

By definition, a review of the green belt is controversial. However, if it is done in the context of a plans-led review, if an umbilical cord connects it to PPG2 and if it takes into account the statements with which the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire began his speech, with which I entirely agreed, I believe that the outcome of the EIP will be beneficial to Cambridgeshire overall. I cannot prejudge that process, of course, but we hope that it will amount to a proper detailed review of the area. I endorse everything that both hon. Gentlemen said about the green belt around Cambridgeshire, except for the bits about specific sites, which I could not comment on even if I wanted to.

I shall write to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire about what happens when land already designated has not been built on, because I was not clear about that point on myself, and it is an important issue. If any other issues arise when I read the hon. Gentleman's speech in Hansard, I shall happily get back to him on them. The issue is important, and I congratulate both hon. Gentlemen on raising it.

Question put and agreed to.

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