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I am not surprised that the Government have tabled the Trap Grounds amendments, which I
naturally support. I welcome the other amendments, which are the Governments response to representations that I made in Committee. I regret that the Minister has not been given the concrete examples that he and the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) asked for. I have spoken to the individuals and businesses who originally made representations to me, who said that notwithstanding the assurances given by the Minister and his hon. Friend, they were concerned about commercial confidentiality and therefore felt unable to provide examples. I do not necessarily endorse that stance, but that is why it did not happen.
I am particularly pleased that the Minister tabled the amendments, despite not having those examplesI know what they are, but it would be improper to describe thembecause they represent a significant step forward. They deal with situations such as those that I described in Committee, whereby a development may have been started but not completed. There could be serious financial consequences for the developer if it was unable to complete a project that was a complete package, particularly if it had laid infrastructure or designed an estate, for example. I do not know whether the Minister has taken advice on this, but I suspect that the amendments will relieve him of the risk of claims for substantial damages from such developers if that had happened. That may have been another factor in persuading him to table them, but whatever his reasons, they are welcome.
I tabled amendment (a) because I should like the Minister to clarify for me, and for my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), the precise meaning of the word construction. In Committee, we had a discussion about the meaning of the word building. Although amendment No. 10 initially refers to construction works, paragraph (c) refers to works. Most of us can understand what works means, but some people might argue that construction works can mean physical walls, steel uprights, and so on. Would it include ground works such as digging foundations, the laying of drains, or the construction of security fencing around a site, which is, sadly, an essential precursor to developing a site nowadays? It might cover a whole raft of things. The Minister is conscious of the Pepper v. Hart dictum, which at this stage in the proceedings of a Bill is about all that we can rely on. I hope that he will explain exactly what he means by construction works and how restrictive that might be in the interpretation of the wider group of amendments, which in principle I wholly support.
Paddy Tipping: Several of us said in Committee that we were keen on the creation of more village greens, and clause 15 allows that to happen. As the Minister said, the Trap Grounds case has held up some applications, but that judgment is now through.
I want to talk about a case that I mentioned in Committeethat of Keenwell in Calverton in Nottinghamshire. Local people in Calverton made an application for registration of that new green at the back end of last year. The commons registration authority, Nottinghamshire county council, decided not to pursue the registration at that stage as it was awaiting the outcome of the Trap Grounds judgment.
That judgment is helpful, as is clause 15(4), which suggests that local inhabitants have a claim if they have used the land lawfully for sports and pastimes for more than 20 years. That condition is met. I know Keenwell extremely well; it is a site of some value bordered by an ancient village track.
Within the last month, the registration application has been made, and it is a case of so far, so good. However, the owner of the land, Langridge Homes, recently said that it had an outstanding planning permission that has lain dormant since 1972so dormant that the planning authority, Gedling borough council, was unable to find it. A struggle has been going on in Calverton between the local people who made the application to the registration authority and Langridge Homes. That may be the kind of example that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire was looking for. Langridge Homes now wants to start developing that land to block the application.
Mr. Paice: I am puzzled as to how a planning consent that old is still extantI should have thought that it would have expired. I was not thinking of that sort of example but of what the word construction means in the context of people having already started a development.
Paddy Tipping: The planning permission is still relevant precisely because it is so oldnew legislation that has been passed since then would mean that nowadays such an application would fall. As it is, there is an understanding that there is an existing planning application. It seems to me that clause 15(4), which allows an application where there has been 20 years usage, is ineffective because planning permission in respect of this land was granted before 23 June 2006. There is real tension and conflict between local people who feel that they have a just claim and a developer that has come along with a planning consent going back 30 years.
There is a subplot to this. Although at the moment the story is so far, so good, it is thought that the developer, Langridge Homes, does not really want to build houses on the site. It really wants to drive a road through the site, across the ancient track, Dark lane, to gain access to a more valuable piece of land, where it hopes to get a large planning consent for housing.
I was pleased with clause 15 and subsection (4), but I am not so pleased with amendment No. 10 and proposed new subsection (4A). I want to advocate strongly the case of people in Calverton for registration of Keenwell as a village green. It has been used as a village green, and is being used as one today. If amendment No. 10 is accepted, those peoples aspiration to establish it as a village green for all time falls. I think that that is disappointing. They would describe it in stronger terms.
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con):
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping). I am sorry that I shall put an individual case that goes the other way and that has major implications for brownfield sites. I have been lurking in the undergrowth on this Bill for the past few months, having private discussions with the Ministers predecessor, the hon.
Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), and sending quite a lot of information, I think, to the Minister. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), who has put my point of view. I am pleased by his amendment (a) to Government amendment No. 10, which I nearly welcome entirelymy only worry is that it does not go far enough.
If you will permit me, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall go into some detail on the case of the town of Oswestry, which has major implications for brownfield sites across the country. Oswestrys population is 37,308, which has grown dramatically by about 11 per cent. in the past 15 years. It has four wards with the highest population density in the whole of Shropshire. On several criteria in the deprivation indicators index, they do not do well. For childrens income deprivation, Carreg Llwyd and Gatacre are in the bottom 30 per cent. in Shropshire. For older peoples income deprivation, Cambrian, Gatacre, Castle and Carreg Llwyd are in the bottom 30 per cent. Carreg Llwyd falls into the lowest 20 per cent. nationally for education, skills and training. I do not want to paint a terribly black picture of Oswestry, but there are opportunities for land development to have a major impact, particularly with regard to health.
As I said, I nearly welcome entirely amendment No. 10, but there is one project that it could jeopardise completely. There used to be an Oswestry and district hospital, which was built by benefactors in the 1930s and sadly closed, and many of the promises made about the services carrying on were not met. The primary care trust, when it was formed, had a meeting with me, and set up an inquiry into Oswestrys health needs, which was widely welcomed. A most ambitious project emerged to build an enhanced primary care centre, which received overwhelming support by a show of hands at a packed public meeting organised by the then leader of the council, Councillor Betty Gull. The centre would collect together all the basic NHS services offered in Oswestry, but additional services would be provided. At the time, there was controversy about a maternity unit closure, but that would be brought into the town. There was also a proposal, which I called phase 3, to build a 60-bed nursing home, which would also benefit the town hugely.
The site involved is known as the Five Acre site, right in the middle of Oswestry, which used to be the shunting sidings and approach to Oswestry station. Oswestry had been the headquarters of the Cambrian railway, which closed in the 1960s. It had had substantial workshops, and it was one of the towns major employers. The site has been a ghastly derelict eyesore ever since. It is on the main approach to Oswestry, and there are a lot of self-seeded willows and elders, as well as a large amount of scruffy rose bay, willow herb and substantial amounts of rubbish, litter and supermarket bags blowing around. Since the railway closed, however, the site has been used by the inhabitants of Oswestry as a place to walk. The issue of what should happen to the land has been one of real controversy.
The proposed development, which involves the local regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands, would be very significant. I have given some background information about the town. The RDA has already
spent £2.4 million regenerating the station building, and intends to spend about £2 million on remedial work on the Five Acre site, with a further £1.3 million of transport works attached to the site. The primary care centre would cost £5 million, and the nursing home, which would also have free-at-the-point-of-use maternity and community beds would cost about £8 million. Extra housing costing about £3 million would be provided, as well as live-and-work units worth £1 million. The cream on the cake is a plan to revive the old Cambrian railway as a heritage railway, which would cost about £11 million. That brings the total to nearly £34 million without even trying. If the railway took off, bringing in a conservative estimate of 60,000 visitors, it would involve spending of about £2 million a year. Bridgnorth, for instance, brings in £8 million a year, and Minehead apparently brings in £6 million.
The point is that the whole project, which would be of enormous significance to the town of Oswestry and the surrounding area, depends on the status of the Five Acre site. It was the subject of a village green application in August 2004, which went to a public inquiry last October. The inspector rejected the application based on current law. That whole exercise involved more than £100,000 in legal costs. Clearly, until we clarify exactly how clause 15 will emerge from our deliberations, and what effect amendment No. 10 will have on it, there is some uncertainty. I cannot help adding that the people who put in the application are splendidthey are some of the greatest campaigners for health services, who have been out in wet, filthy weather collecting petitions. On this issue, sadly, they have been terribly misguided. However, we have a wonderful iron age fort called Old Oswestry to go and walk on.
If the project is stalled, the worry is that the primary care trust will be under tremendous pressure from other parts of Shropshire, including parts of my constituency, and that the money will go elsewhere, a chain reaction will set in, and all the projects will fall. Advantage West Midlands is seriously concerned that a precedent could be set for other brownfield sites across the country. It makes a good point that such sites are often in areas of heavy contamination and deprivation, which are often the last to be developed. Therefore, they are also the ones with the longest record of use by local residents for casual recreation, dog walking and so on. The problem is that those sites cost tens of thousands of pounds to investigate, and remedial work such as removing contaminants and preparing sites for construction can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.
In that regard, I would really like to hear the Ministers definition of what is meant by construction works in amendment No. 10, paragraph (b). I would also like an explanation of why we cannot revert to the wording of sub-paragraphs (i) and (ii), under paragraph (c), which would be the effect of my hon.
Friends amendment (a) in removing the word construction. Do remedial works and clearing trees, rubbish and detritus of 50 years count as the beginning of construction? Does building a security fence, which is the prerequisite of any construction site, count as the beginning of construction works? Does carrying out an archaeological survey count? In some parts of the country, it would be unconscionable to start developing a site without carrying out serious archaeological investigations. Surely, those are an integral part of the whole construction process. If clause 15 does not allow those processes, bluntly, it will make development of those sites across the country considerably more risky and unlikely to happen.
The weed-strewn, abandoned railway land in the town of Oswestry has been an economic and visual blight on the towns landscape for decades.
The town and borough is crying out for improved health care provision and the disused railway land is the perfect location to accommodate a modern GP practice and a 50 bed nursing/care facility for which outline planning consent has been given and which would also be the hub for other essential medical and community care services.
It has the backing of the public who are frustrated by the delay caused by a handful of people who are opposed to the project.
New residential development for which planning has already been given plus a modern health village together with the former Station Building refurbished at a cost of more than £2 million would provide an attractive gateway to the town rather than the eyesore that exists at present and which has meant that some businesses bring clients into the town via an alternative route.
Councillor Lloyd was referring to himself at that point. I know that when he takes potential investors into Oswestry he does not take them past that site because it is so off-puttingor was, until a large wooden fence was built around it.
when one looks at the benefit to the whole borough it would be unthinkable that this area was left to go back to the wilderness it once was. In fact since it has been cleared the vandalism in that area has decreased enormously and personally I feel if the area was regenerated, it would boost civic pride, improve the main artery into the town from the North which currently such a would be investor would come along, just promotes an area of misery and poverty not one of vibrancy and vitality.
I should like the Minister to explain why the word construction is necessary. It makes the definition unnecessarily narrow, unless preliminary work of the kind that I have describedclearing a site, building a security fence and carrying out environmental tests and preparatory workcounts as part of the construction process. Most people would interpret construction in the same way as my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire: starting with bricks and mortar, and laying foundations. In this instance, that is the easy bit. By far the most difficult part of the project has been getting all the interested parties together. I have attended more than 15 meetingsevery two monthsas well as meetings here.
the preparation for an intended structure, including site clearance, exploration, investigation (but not site survey) and excavation
What I am saying is in complete contrast to what was said by the hon. Member for Sherwood. I have described a site that has been derelict and a complete mess for 30 or 40 years, but which according to custom has been used for casual dog-walking, and which a small number of peopleI think 30 signed the petitionconsider should be designated common land. That is against the interests of the 37,000 people living in the area who desperately want improved health care, job opportunities, and the regeneration that would result from tourism projects. I should like the Minister to explain clearly what he means by construction works. If he cannot give us an assurance, would he be prepared to accept amendment (a) and remove the word construction, leaving just the word works? He has already done that in subparagraphs (i) and (ii).
Barry Gardiner: The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) have given textbook examples of the difficulties that Ministers experience in having to reach decisions of this kind.
I was grateful for the way in which the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) phrased his speech. I was grateful for his clear acceptance of the progress that has been made since Committee, and of the two development-related concessions that are already in clause 15 in response to proposals of his. Each has addressed the specific problems raised. His amendment (a) seeks a third concession in relation to development interests.
Our starting point is that clause 15 strikes a carefully crafted balance between development interests and the interests of local people who have used land for recreation as of right over a long period. Having acted to protect construction works that have already begun by 23 June, we are now asked to weaken the requirement still further so that if works of any description have been carried out by that date, the land cannot be registered.
The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire referred to a potential inconsistency, but I do not believe that that exists. He spoke of the word construction and the use of the word works. If the construction has begun by 23 June, any subsequent worksnot necessarily construction works; they could be repair or remedial worksin pursuance of the planning consent would exempt the land in question if incompatible with recreational use. Construction carries its everyday meaning here in relation to building works. Construction works is intended to signify that something must have started to be built as part of the
development, but it would exclude mere preparatory work such as excavating a trench for foundations or ancillary works such as putting up a security fence around the site. That answers a specific question from the hon. Member for North Shropshire.
Mr. Paice: I realise that the Minister is working from several different sets of notesI know how it is; been there, done thatbut can he clarify exactly what is within and what is outside the definition of construction as he understands it? It might be helpful for the record if he could give any examples of cases in which the word construction has been defined in law.
Barry Gardiner: I shall be as clear and precise as I can, because the hon. Gentleman is right: this is crucial. I wanted to reinforce the difference between the use of the words construction works and the use of the word works on its own. Works would apply, under a later provision in the Bill, to repairs and maintenance rather than specific construction.
Our amendments are not about making planning consents automatically prevail over the ability to register land as a green. I hope that this goes some way towards answering the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood. They are simply intended to ensure that registration does not constitute an effort to turn back the clock when construction works have already begun. There is a big difference between those two approaches.
It would be quite wrong for us to change clause 15 in a way that gave developers carte blanche to build houses on existing greens. That would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Land is only registrable in the first place under the clause if local people have genuinely used it for their recreation without permission, without force and without secrecy for at least 20 years. That is the kind of land that our ancient law of custom treats as a town or village green. It would be wrong for planning consent automatically to override that customary arrangement. That is not something changed by provisions in the Bill; it is something that is already part of the law of the land. Whether land has become a green in this way is outside the scope of the planning consideration, and is purely a matter of law.
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