The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw):
Our bilateral relations with the United States are excellent. The United States is crucial to the achievement of the United Kingdom's own international strategic priorities. In that connection I should like to extend a warm welcome to the new
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United States ambassador to the Court of St. James, the hon. Robert H. Tuttle, who arrived in London at the weekend.
Paul Flynn: In the interests of improving the harmony of those bilateral relations, does the Minister agree with the statement by his counterpart, Condoleezza Rice, that Britain's involvement in the Iraq war increasedI repeat, increasedthe threat of terrorist action here?
May I take this opportunity to put on record something else about my hon. Friendmy appreciation for the first occasion during my whole time as a Minister on which he has expressed unequivocal thanks for something I have done: I arranged for EU Foreign Ministers to hold an informal meeting in his constituency, and he wrote back saying, "Thank you"full stop. I say to him, "Thank youfull stop."
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)
(Con): Is the Foreign Secretary aware that the former British
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ambassador to the United Nations, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, has been circulating a draft of a book called, "The Cost of War"? Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that it is unfortunate, and perhaps embarrassing for him, that Sir Jeremy calls the Americans' decision to go to war politically illegitimate? When Sir Jeremy was our ambassador at the United Nations, did he ever express such views to the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister?
Mr. Straw: This is a matter of speculation, but there is an issueand I am glad the hon. Gentleman has raised itfor all Members and for all parties, particularly those which aspire to enter government. There is a long-standing tradition in this country, going back to the middle of the 19th century, by which we have a permanent and impartial civil service, and part of that necessary arrangement is a very high level of trust and confidence between Ministers and officials. For that reason, there are clear rules laid down in the civil service and in the diplomatic service, and we all look forward to those being adhered to in both their spirit and their letter.
The following Member took and subscribed the Oath:
Mr. William Cash, supported by Mr. Austin Mitchell, Nick Harvey, Mr. Christopher Chope, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. Owen Paterson, Mr. Bernard Jenkin, Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson, Mr. Edward Leigh, Michael Gove and Philip Davies presented a Bill to provide that a specified Community instrument relating to food supplements shall not have effect in the United Kingdom notwithstanding the provisions of the European Communities Act 1972; to revoke secondary legislation giving effect in the United Kingdom to that instrument; to amend the Food Safety Act 1990 in relation to food supplements; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First Time; and ordered to be read a Second Time on Friday 14 October, and to be printed. [Bill 46].
That leave be given to bring in a That leave be given to bring in a Bill to impose conditions on the sale of parkland by local authorities; to make provision about the circumstances in which a planning application may be rejected by a local authority and about rights of appeal in such circumstances; to prohibit repeated planning applications in certain circumstances; and for connected purposes.
This Bill is intended to give communities a greater say in building developments and in keeping the green heritage that shapes the character of their lives. My constituency of Solihull, like many leafy suburbs, is characterised by green open space, parks and many lovely old properties. But that character is being eroded by threats to that green open space and the constant destruction of those houses and the erection of blocks of luxury flats in their stead. The flats or, to use developer speak, "apartments", stick out from the rest of the housing nearby like sore thumbs. Residents hate such development, and more than half of my postbag relates to residents calling for action to stop windfall developments of that kind.
If councillors want to stop the developments, they are constrained by central Government planning guidance and policy, which permits developers to appeal against council decisions and to make councils pay all the costs if the council loses. So councils may be reluctant to object to planning applications, but if the council will not bite the bullet and refuse a planning application, local people have nowhere else to turn. They cannot object in their own right because there is no third-party right of appeal. If the developer does not appeal, he can make fresh applications again and again, wearing down a community, blighting residents' lives for years and years until they either move away or lose the will to carry on fighting.
We understand that current planning law was designed to achieve higher intensity development that reduces the necessity for building on open space and green belt. We applaud that, but by designating people's gardens as brownfield land, planning guidelines have had the unintended consequence of enabling developers to target windfall developments in preference to true brownfield sites. Developers, like any other business people, are in business to make a profit. If they can develop a soft target, instead of tackling polluted and more difficult inner-city true brownfield sites, they will do so. It is like putting a goat in a garden and telling it to eat thistles and not the flowers: unless it is restrained, it will go for the prize begonias every time. But when a developer seeks to build in someone's garden, there are often things more substantial than begonias in the wayin other words, trees.
Often, the first thing a developer will do before an application is submitted is to fell any trees so that their presence cannot be used as a justification for refusing planning permission. And unless those trees are fortunate enough to be sited in a conservation area, or have tree preservation orders on them, there is not a thing that anyone can do about it. That is our first problem.
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The second problem occurs if a council decides to sell off green open space, parkland or some other green amenity as defined in PPG17. In Solihull, despite large petitions objecting, the council has determined that it will sell off more than six hectares of open space to fund the redevelopment of the local leisure centre. Despite the fact that the local community is up in arms, the council is ploughing ahead with destroying our green heritage. When that parkland is gone, it will be gone for ever.
What happens when the council has another project it needs to fund? What other bit of parkland will it sell off then? Soon Solihull, whose motto is "Urbs in rure" or "town in the country", will have to change its motto to simply "Urbs", or even "Urbs 'r' us", because there will be no "rure" left to talk about.
People care passionately about their local environment, but they have no say in the decisions taken in their name other than to vote out those who have made the decisions at election time. By then, it can be too late.
Sometimes the sale of green space affects too small an electorate to enable those people to vote out the perpetrators. There has to be a way of addressing the balance and of giving local people a say in what the character of their local area should be. So that is the problem, and I shall outline how I propose that the provisions in the Bill would tackle it.
First, there is the issue of public green space. Councils have a duty to consult local people before green space is sold off, but where the council is determined to impose a course of action, consultation can be a sham. I therefore propose that local communities should be given management control of council green space, effectively making it true common land. That would mean that they would have to agree to any change of use or sale. This is already the case in rural areas where there are still commons, and the locals vote on any development proposals. If we extended that principle to public green space, local people in urban areas would then have the responsibilities as well as rights over their green environment.
I believe that windfall developments are a largely unintended consequence of PPG3. I propose amending PPG3 to redesignate garden land as greenfield land. Under the sequential test of PPG3, true brownfield land would then have to be developed before garden land could be considered. An exception for extensions into back gardens of existing properties would need to be made. If a development involved the building of more than one property, the rules of PPG3 could apply.
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I further propose a third-party right of appeal so that where councils were unwilling to refuse an application that contravenes the local plan, local people themselves could appeal to the Secretary of State.
Next is the blighting of communities by continuing re-applications for planning permission. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 will abolish twin-tracking of applications when it is introduced. That will give some relief. However, there is nothing to stop a developer continuing to reapply for different developments on the same site. I propose that after three applications have been turned down within three years, local residents should be given a rest and that no further applications would be eligible for consideration within a further three years. That would enable an almost acceptable application to be modified and re-submitted while protecting local residents from the constant pressure of continuous new applicationsa sort of "three strikes and you're out" formula.
The only trees that are currently protected from destruction are those that are subject to preservation orders, or trees that are in conservation areas. I propose that our leafy suburbs and urban areas should be protected by extending to all urban areas the rules regarding felling and works to trees over a certain size or age. That would put the onus on developers and on everyone else who wants to destroy trees over a certain size or age to notify the local authority. Trees are not only beautiful and worth preserving in their own right; they are the green lung of our communities. We cannot have leafy suburbia without leaves.
Central control of planning is needed in some circumstances, but one size does not fit all at a local level. People want, and should have, more control over the planning decisions that affect their lives, and the Bill would give it to them.