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Mr. Paice: I am not surprised that the Government have tabled the Trap Grounds amendments, which I
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naturally support. I welcome the other amendments, which are the Government’s 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 I have spoken to the individuals and businesses who originally made representations to me, who said that notwithstanding the assurances given by the Minister and his hon.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 examples—I know what they are, but it would be improper to describe them—because 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 Committee—that 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.
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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 1972—so 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 extant—I 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 old—new 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 people’s 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 Minister’s predecessor, the hon.
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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 entirely—my 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. Oswestry’s 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 children’s income deprivation, Carreg Llwyd and Gatacre are in the bottom 30 per cent. in Shropshire. For older people’s 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 Oswestry’s 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 town’s 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.

2.15 pm

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
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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.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I have been fairly lenient with the hon. Gentleman. We have a reasonable amount of background, and perhaps he could now relate it to the amendment.

Mr. Paterson: I was wondering when I might test your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I thought that it would be helpful for the Minister to have the maximum amount of information.

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 splendid—they 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 Minister’s 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.
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Friend’s 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.

Let me give the House an idea of the strength of feeling locally. The current leader of Oswestry borough council, Councillor David G. Lloyd, told me this morning:

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-putting—or was, until a large wooden fence was built around it.

Similarly, Oswestry borough council’s regeneration officer has said:

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 described—clearing a site, building a security fence and carrying out environmental tests and preparatory work—counts 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 meetings—every two months—as well as meetings here.

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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that we are well aware of the importance of the site to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, but I ask him now to relate and confine his remarks to the amendment.

Mr. Paterson: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am trying to tease out of the Minister a definition of “construction”. The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 1994 lists

as one of its criteria.

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 people—I think 30 signed the petition—consider 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 works—not necessarily construction works; they could be repair or remedial works—in 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
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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 notes—I know how it is; been there, done that—but 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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