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15 Jun 2005 : Column 135WH—continued

Gedling Local Plan

4.24 pm

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): I am most grateful for the opportunity to debate the Gedling local plan, which has been in gestation for a number of years and is now coming to a head. People who live in the area covered by Gedling borough council—6,500 of whom have objected to the Gedling local plan—will be delighted about the debate. I have no doubt that they will read and follow the proceedings carefully.

The intention of the debate is to raise the profile of the issue in the highest levels of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. There is real concern, and a real desire for action to be taken. I know that the Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister are aware of the problems and the situation because I wrote to them, first on 4 April and subsequently on 9 May, pointing out that the Deputy Prime Minister had powers to intervene in the local plan process.

I appreciate that the Minister's officials, both in his office and at the Government office for the east midlands, have been considering the issues involved and making inquiries. I also appreciate that because the matter is, in a sense, quasi-judicial the Minister is constrained in what he can say today. I suspect that he will be reluctant to speak directly about the Gedling borough council local plan, but I hope that he will be prepared to talk in general terms about the planning policies and issues involved. I hope that he will listen to my final plea, which will be for the Deputy Prime Minister to make an early decision about whether he intends to intervene in the plan process.

At the outset, I say that it is not all bad news. Gedling borough council has been working on the local plan since 1996. It has been a tortuous process. There have been real difficulties. One of the positive features has been that there has been tremendous public consultation, and a revision of the plan at various stages. I am not critical of any of the members of Gedling borough council personally, or of any of their officials—quite the contrary. Bob Wilson, the local plan manager, has been diligent and hard-working and is always sensitive and willing to help. He has been willing to respond to many questions. The leader of the council, Councillor Ivan Gollop, has also been involved—he has attended many meetings in the borough and considered the issues involved closely. There is no doubt in my mind that, if it were possible, he would be keen to protect and preserve the green belt.

However, we are where we are. On 1 June 2005, just a few days ago, Gedling borough council decided to adopt the local plan. The process is not over. I understand that there is a notification of intention to adopt that will run until 12 July. Following that, I am told that there is a six-week period in which people who wish to consider a legal challenge—such as a judicial review or a challenge in the High Court—can take action.

So, although there has been a long period of preparing the plan and the council has made a decision, there is still time for action. The action that I want taken is that which I outlined in my letters of 4 April and 9 May. I want the Deputy Prime Minister to become more directly involved and to consider some of the planning issues. I also know that there is a strong possibility that local people will mount a challenge in the High Court.
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I should mention one of the paradoxes of the case. The local parish councils, Linby, Papplewick, Ravenshead and Bestwood, have all taken legal advice. They have been prepared to use parishioners' money to buy legal advice and to share it with Gedling borough council. It is rather sad that although the borough council has had the benefit of that legal advice, and although it has sought its own legal advice, in a sense to try to resolve the situation, on two occasions it has not been prepared to make that advice available to the parish councils. There should be a sense of equity. There is an issue about who pays for the legal advice. Clearly, it is the residents living in the borough council area who are affected by that advice. It is very sad that the borough council will not share its advice, even though the parish councils, keen to make compromises, find a way forward and have discussions, have been open about theirs.

There is no doubt in my mind, talking to the parish councils and local people, that there is a strong possibility of a challenge being mounted in the High Court. I should explain to the Minister why there is such concern and action. We are seeing real community involvement and real community politics. There is a strong feeling in the north of the Gedling borough council area that the council is making the wrong decision, that the local plan is fundamentally flawed, that it is bad in principle and that it will produce the wrong results.

Let me highlight the reasons for that feeling. First, we all—the Government in particular—believe in the development of brownfield sites before intrusion into greenfield sites and the green belt. Let me be blunt: that will not happen with the Gedling local plan. The council is clear about that. It does not even pretend that that is the aspiration. It accepts that if the local plan goes through as it is currently envisaged, there will be large-scale housing development in the green belt before more sustainable sites—such as Teal close, close to the Nottingham conurbation, and, more particularly, the former Gedling colliery site, a brownfield site where the colliery has been closed for years—are developed. That is plainly wrong. The Government's planning advice is clear. It is now universally accepted that brownfield development should take place before greenfield and green belt development. However, that will not happen if this local plan is adopted. We will see areas of north Nottinghamshire being built on for housing very quickly indeed.

Let me identify some of the sites. They include Top Wighay farm in Linby, a conservation area. Linby is a picturesque village with a historic background, situated as far towards the border of the north-west of the Gedling borough council area as one can get. The site has been identified for large-scale housing allocation and employment use. That is not sustainable development; it is the borough council pushing development right to the edge of its patch. It is no wonder that the neighbouring council, Ashfield district council, which comes right up to the border, is objecting strongly. In fact, the consequences of development at Top Wighay will have profound effects on Hucknall in the Ashfield district council area, rather than on the rest of the Gedling borough council area. People say to me, "It doesn't make sense," and it does not.
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Cornwater in Ravenshead is another example. Ravenshead is a large, wealthy village, from which many people commute into Nottingham and Mansfield. There, a site next to the leisure centre has been identified for housing. Finally, I should mention Dark lane in Calverton. As its name suggests, it is an old green lane with historic connotations—a place of real beauty, which is soon to be built over for housing.

I cannot get an answer from the borough council as to why it is pursuing policies that will ensure that those sites are developed before, say, the Gedling colliery site. That is an area of significant dereliction which has been identified for major housing development, yet the borough council accepts that its development will not take place until long after development on the greenfield sites and green belt. I want the Minister to make inquiries, both of the borough council and of the East Midlands Development Agency, which owns the site, to find out why there has been such a delay in putting in the infrastructure at Gedling colliery site and bringing it to the market.

One of the issues is that, at the insistence of Nottinghamshire county council, a spine road needs to be put in to allow the colliery site to develop. I shall come to that council in a moment. I do not believe that Gedling colliery is too difficult to develop; we should make haste there. Perhaps I should turn to Teal close in Netherfield. The site was discounted by the planning inspector in May 2004. At that point, he reported that the site was by the River Trent and was liable to flooding. In fairness to the Environment Agency—I commend its work in Nottinghamshire—I should say that it has now confirmed that the site will not flood.

Teal close is available for development, and could be used for housing and employment. It edges on to the built-up area. It is in the constituency of the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), who, because of his other duties, cannot speak on these matters. He, too, has been involved with the people who are concerned about development on the green belt, and is anxious about the matter. Teal close is available for development. Again, it requires an access road to be put in by Nottinghamshire county council, and again the council has underestimated the cost of the road and, as a result, the timetable for the development has slipped. It must be right, in principle, in planning terms for the Gedling colliery site and Teal close to be developed before greenfield sites such as Top Wighay, Cornwater and Dark lane.

Secondly, the notion of a sequential approach to housing development—identifying the most appropriate sites to develop first, then moving on to the less environmentally desirable ones—has simply been disregarded in the Gedling local plan. In the north of the Gedling borough, there is a planning auction. Planning applications have been made for housing on Top Wighay, on Cornwater and at Dark lane. Unless we get a grip of the planning process, we shall see new housing built on those sites very quickly. So much for sequential development—brownfield before greenfield.

I shall make a prediction: the kind of housing that will be built there will not meet local needs. I anticipate that the housing that will be built at Top Wighay will be what
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I call ranch-style executive homes: five-bedroomed houses with room for two cars on the drive. What we really need, if we want housing that meets local needs, is smaller housing nearer to town centres. What drives the housing market is the fact that many of us are living longer and that more families are splitting up, divorcing and therefore needing two houses. We do not need ranch-style executive homes; we need smaller housing nearer town centres, but that will not happen under the Gedling local plan.

Thirdly, and most significantly, all the housing development is simply unnecessary. If the borough council acted sensibly and professionally and used the latest information, there would be no need for such housing allocations. The Gedling local plan is based on the existing structure plan, but as the Minister will know—his officials have been looking at this—a new structure plan is emerging in Nottingham and Nottinghamshire. That plan was helped by the panel report on the joint structure plan that was published in September 2004. That allocates 1,000 fewer houses to Gedling borough council. Put bluntly, if the borough council were to choose the new reduced housing figures—and there is nothing to prohibit that choice—there would be no need for housing on any greenfield or green belt site.

The new structure plan would be in place very quickly. Nottingham city and Nottinghamshire county councils are to discuss the new structure plan at their joint committee on planning and transportation on 15 July, and they intend to adopt the new plan by the end of the year. I understand that if the Secretary of State chooses not to intervene, a legal challenge will be mounted. It may be that we will have a new structure plan with 1,000 fewer houses, whereas the old structure plan still has those 1,000 houses—and Gedling borough's local plan is dependent on the old structure plan. Put simply, the day that the Gedling local plan is adopted, it will be out of date.

The council should take into account planning policy guidance note 12, which makes it clear that councils should use the most recent and relevant information, but it is simply not doing that. Perversely, at one point the local plan process was put on hold while the joint panel report was published. There was an expectation that the borough council would take the new figures into account, but on 1 June the council decided firmly and finally not to do so. I am not sure why that happened, and local people are not sure either, but there are rumours, and I want to focus on the role of Nottinghamshire county council.

I pointed out earlier that the development of the Gedling colliery site was dependent on a new road, which the county council was insistent on. The development of Teal close is also dependent on a new road, again to be provided by the county council. It is important to see what local politicians are saying locally. Gedling is a balanced council where the leadership rotates, and the last leader of the council, my good friend Councillor Roland Spencer, said that

The county council is so keen to have the development on Top Wighay that during the inquiry on the Gedling local plan it spent a cool £450,000 on consultancy fees,
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reports and feasibility studies to ensure that Top Wighay was included. I find it crazy and it makes me angry that one public authority is threatening another with legal action, which will be funded by the local people. That is not right. The county council should look closely at its activities as a landowner.

There is a potential conflict. The county council is the strategic planning authority. It is also a landowner that has told me directly that it has been offered £132 million for the sale of Top Wighay. What makes matters worse is that the county council has a policy of devolving, giving 10 per cent. of the capital receipt to the local borough council. The county council will receive £132 million and Gedling borough council will receive a £13 million cut. I cast no aspersions, but I will just tell the Minister what local people say about that: the local plan is driven by financial gain for the county council and Gedling borough council.

I want to quote from two of the letters that I have received. The first is from Margaret Kerr of Papplewick, in the affected area. She said that she was told that

I share her concerns, as do many people locally.

Patricia Andrews, who lives at Ravenshead, wrote to me more specifically. She said that her

That was in relation to land at Ravenshead. My own view is that both the people named have acted impeccably and there can be no impropriety. However, there is certainly a view that the planning process is being abused.

I am extremely grateful for the work that the Minister's officials have put into the matter. I said at the outset that I did not expect a definitive answer today. I want the Minister to outline the planning principles and processes involved. However, I say to him, to the Secretary of State through him and to the wider audience who closely follow our proceedings that there is still time to act. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the planning process. There is a view that it has not been transparent. There is a strong view, which is right and correct, that development should take place on the brownfield sites before the greenfield sites. Once lost, greenfield sites and the green belt can never be recreated.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to raise the issue today and to work closely with the local parish councils and local people. To put it bluntly and simply, there is still time to act. It has been a long planning process, but it is not over yet. People in north Nottinghamshire and the Gedling area want to leave a legacy of green fields for their children and grandchildren. They are right. I am delighted at the fight so far. I remain an optimist. I believe that we can win the battle, and it is a battle that I am proud to support.
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4.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick) : I welcome you, Miss Widdecombe, to the Chair for this important debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) on securing it.

My hon. Friend acknowledges that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the merits of specific policies or allocations proposed in the Gedling replacement local plan, as it could prejudice the First Secretary of State's impartiality in fulfilling his statutory responsibilities. However, I am able to discuss the important issue of the need to ensure sustainable development through the development plan system in relation to the Gedling borough replacement local plan process.

First, I must emphasise the Government's commitment to a plan-led system for sustainable land use. The preparation of development plans is the most effective way of reconciling the demand for development and the protection of the environment. It plays a key role in contributing to a strategy for sustainable development by helping to provide the necessary development locations, yet it does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The Government are also committed to reforming and enhancing the system. In line with that, we successfully introduced the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, the first planning Act for more than a decade. It represents our commitment to a fundamental reform of the planning system that will nurture a strategic, proactive force for creating inclusive, accessible, safe and sustainable communities. Planning is about improving the quality of life and of places.

The 2004 Act establishes a system for making better plans and better planning decisions more quickly. It introduces a simpler, more flexible plan-making system in the shape of local development frameworks. LDFs are made up of a suite of planning documents covering various aspects of spatial planning instead of a single all-encompassing local plan. In addition to being faster and more flexible, the new system also strengthens community and stakeholder involvement, and it allows people to be involved from the outset and throughout the plan-making process. Local planning authorities are required to set out their plans for creating a local development framework in a local development scheme, or LDS.

I am pleased that Gedling met the statutory target date of 28 March for submitting an LDS to the First Secretary of State, and I am pleased that it has been agreed by him. The LDS demonstrates Gedling's commitment to producing a local development framework. Under the new system, Gedling has agreed to produce a core strategy setting out its spatial vision, strategic objectives and core policies for the borough, a set of generic development control policies, site-specific allocations setting out where future development will take place, an area action plan for Arnold, and a statement of community involvement setting out how the community and stakeholders will be involved in the process. Gedling has undertaken to bring those documents to adoption between 2006 and 2011. I urge my hon. Friend to maintain his obvious interest in planning in the borough under that the process, and I ask him to encourage his constituents to take up the opportunities that the new system brings with it.
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I turn from the future to the present, and the substance of today's debate. I welcome the opportunity to look at the Gedling plan. Local authorities have the responsibility of being the plan-making authority for land use. It is their job to bring forward local plans that meet the needs of their areas, in line with Government guidance, and national and regional planning policy. The First Secretary of State's role in the local plan process is to scrutinise development plans to identify whether they are consistent with national and regional guidance and whether there are conflicts with the guidance that do not appear to be justified by local circumstances.

At present, we are in a transitional period during which the old-style development plans will be replaced by new-style LDF documents. We are keen for local planning authorities to move as soon as possible to the new development plan system in accordance with procedures under the 2004 Act. During the transitional period, we wish to maintain continuity in the development plan system and minimise transitional costs. Local planning authorities, such as Gedling, that are in the process of bringing forward plans under the old system are allowed by the 2004 Act to continue that work through to adoption. That was vital to ensure that detailed work and community involvement previously carried out would not be wasted, and to avoid the potential for a planning policy vacuum.

As my hon. Friend is aware, the first statutory stage of the Gedling replacement local plan process took place in February 2000 with the publication of the deposit draft. The council received duly made objections and produced a revised deposit draft just over two years later, in May 2002. Objectors to the proposals were, of course, given an opportunity to voice their concerns, and were heard by an independent inspector appointed by the First Secretary of State at the planning public local inquiry held in March to August 2003.

The inspector made his conclusions based on the evidence presented to him. He duly put forward his recommendations to the council in his report, which was submitted to the authority for their consideration in spring 2004. With the arrival of our new legislation in September 2004, Gedling borough council needed to decide how best to proceed: to continue with the draft plan, or to abandon that work and begin afresh under the new system.

After a thorough consideration of all the options open to it, which I am aware included seeking advice from the structure plan authorities, the Government office for the east midlands and legal counsel, Gedling decided that the best way to proceed was to take the well-advanced draft plan forward to adoption.

As required, Gedling therefore published a statement of decisions and proposed modifications in January of this year. During its consultation period, Gedling took it upon itself to hold additional public meetings, although there was no requirement to do so at that stage.

I understand that some of the allocated sites within Gedling's proposed modifications, involving the development of greenfield land and changes to the green belt boundary, are a source of concern to my hon. Friend and some of his constituents. These concerns relate to a perceived failure of the borough council to comply with national planning policies in allocating the sites, particularly the need to follow a sequential approach. I am aware that my hon. Friend also believes that Gedling may not have taken into account material changes that have occurred since the publication of the inspector's report, as well as housing figures emerging from the Nottinghamshire joint structure plan review.

I recognise these concerns and the strongly held views from which they arise. I also recognise the difficult choices facing local planning authorities in balancing the need to meet the demand for housing and employment against the need to protect the environment. In making the decision on where to locate new development vital to sustain and meet the needs of its borough, Gedling has followed the requirements of the plan-led system, and has kept the Government office informed of its intentions throughout.

As I have said, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the merits of specific policies and allocations proposed by the Gedling replacement local plan, as this could be regarded as prejudicing the First Secretary of State's impartiality in performing his statutory responsibilities.

I can, of course, assure my hon. Friend that all the proposals put forward in the Gedling replacement local plan have been scrutinised by officials on behalf of the First Secretary of State. Rigorous assessment was given at each statutory stage as to the consistency of the proposed policies and allocations within national and regional planning policy guidance which seeks to ensure sustainable development.

In carrying out this scrutiny, careful attention was given to national planning policy of particular importance to Gedling borough. This included policy for the green belt, as contained in planning policy guidance note 2, "Green Belts"; policy for housing especially for greenfield developments as set out in planning policy guidance note 3, "Housing"; and policy for development within areas of flood risk, as set out in planning policy guidance note 25, "Development and Flood Risk".

Again, as my hon. Friend is aware, it remains open for the First Secretary of State to consider the scope and appropriateness of taking any formal action in respect of the draft replacement plan before it is formally adopted. Of course, he will also know that the First Secretary of State's powers of intervention are used sparingly and only as a last resort.

I am aware that Gedling borough council has this week published its proposals to adopt its replacement local plan without any further modifications after 11 July 2005. Officials are currently giving detailed consideration to the issues involved and, I am sure, will scrutinise my hon. Friend's comments today as part of that scrutiny process. My hon. Friend will receive a response to his further letter to the Deputy Prime Minister in due course.

I will, of course, ensure that my hon. Friend is informed of the First Secretary of State's decision with regard to the Gedling replacement local plan as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

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