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The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


The Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Points of Order

9.33 am

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I came in this morning at half-past 7, as I usually do on a Friday, to prepare for today’s business. I particularly wanted to prepare for the Bill that I thought would be first on the Order Paper, bearing in mind that it was listed first yesterday—the Income Tax (Earnings Exemption for Persons Living in Poverty) (No. 2) Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). I wanted to compare his Bill with the Opposition’s proposed tax package of £21 billion-worth of tax cuts to see whether there was anything to be gained from their proposals that might help me in today’s debate, particularly as regards their impact on people in poverty. I see, however, that that Bill has been withdrawn from today’s agenda. Is that because the Opposition are frightened of debating their tax plans, or is there some other reason? Is there any way, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in which we could get that Bill back on to the Order Paper today so that we can examine those tax plans as against the hon. Gentleman’s Bill?

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I think that the House would wish to commend the hon. Gentleman on his dedication to duty in being here so early, but sometimes hon. Members have to move very fast indeed to keep pace with what may be happening as far as their colleagues are concerned. It is not a matter of order for the Chair if an hon. Member chooses to withdraw a Bill. A certain number seem to have disappeared from the Order Paper in the past 24 hours.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not test the Chair too far too early, because it was not a very good point of order.

Andrew Miller: May I draw your attention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to column 1026 in yesterday’s Hansard, where the Leader of the House said in response to a question from me:

These are important issues. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that we want to encourage the usual channels to facilitate such a debate, because when I asked that question there was general agreement throughout the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is in danger of flogging a dying horse. That is not a point of order for the Chair, but it may be a matter that could be pursued in future business questions or in other ways that I am sure the hon. Gentleman is well capable of identifying.

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Orders of the Day

Local Government and Planning (Parkland and Windfall Development) Bill

Order for Second reading read.

9.36 am

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I, and many people in Solihull, have been waiting a long time for this day. I had been in Parliament for only a few weeks when my name came up in the ballot for ten-minute Bills, so it is well over a year since I first introduced this Bill. I was a very green new MP, if hon. Members will pardon the pun, and I did not know my ten-minute Bills from my elbow.

Campaigning on the issues addressed in the Bill was in no small measure instrumental in getting me elected in the first place as the first ever Liberal Democrat in a seat held by the Conservatives for 60 years—ever since the borough was created—so when I was given the opportunity to introduce a Bill, I grabbed at the chance, despite knowing very little about how Parliament worked. I think that my naivety is in some measure reflected in the Bill, which tries to set right the wrongs in the green planning arena that I feel so passionately about. I apologise to hon. Members for the fact that the Bill is something of a shopping list—a basket of remedies for many of the ills that beset the lives of people who care about the environment in Solihull and in many other places in England and Wales. I thank the long-suffering staff in the Public Bill Office, who translated my wish list into a real, live Bill.

Solihull is a leafy suburb of Birmingham—a place in which many aspire to live. The motto of the borough is “Urbs in Rure”—or “town in the country”, for the non-Latin scholars among us. There are several very strong communities in Solihull, and the people who live there are proud of their area and passionate about their environment. What most frustrates people in Solihull is a feeling of powerlessness. They want a say in the decisions that affect their lives. They do not want councils or outside individuals making rulings that they disagree with but are not allowed to object to. What really hacks them off are decisions about their environment that lead to selling off green space that belongs to them and building on it. That is what has happened in Solihull.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I am trying to see where the hon. Lady’s argument fits in with my experience in my constituency. Perhaps the fact that the planning authority is of a different political colour makes the difference. I see, for example, the newspaper headline, “End planning consent, says Gummer”. I have not experienced the problem with my planning authority, so is it down to hers?

Lorely Burt: Different local authorities have different attitudes to the sale of parkland. The Bill seeks to protect constituents against the actions of planning authorities that wish to sell off parkland. If the hon. Gentleman gives me time to make some progress, I hope that that will become clearer.

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In Solihull, despite a 12,000-signature petition, the Conservative council has sold off an area of more than 6 acres of parkland not once, but twice in the past couple of years to fund the rebuilding of a leisure centre. Only a few weeks ago, a final nail was driven into the coffin of another park in Shirley, where almost three acres were sold off so that an Asda superstore, other shops and housing could be built.

We needed the leisure centre upgraded and we needed commercial investment in Shirley, where the superstore will go. However, God is not making any more real estate and, since parks and green spaces belong to the people, surely they should have a say. To be fair, consultation has taken place on the shopping development, but one man’s consultation is another’s pretending to listen but doing it anyway. The development company did an excellent sales job and claimed that most people were in favour of the scheme. On the other hand, a local referendum claimed that 80 per cent. of local people were against the superstore. We need a local referendum on such an important issue so that people can have their say and ownership of whatever comes of the decision that they make.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): The hon. Lady has not stated whether she believes that the Bill complies with the Human Rights Act 1998, especially article 1 of the first protocol of part 2 of the convention. Has the Bill been vetted to ascertain whether it complies with the Act?

Lorely Burt: The Bill was produced by the Public Bill Office, but I do not know whether it has been assessed for compliance with the Human Rights Act. However, I am sure that the Minister for Local Government will give adequate and learned guidance on that.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She mentioned holding a referendum. Has she estimated the cost of that to the taxpayers of Solihull? I fear that it would be an additional burden on their council tax and could perhaps pave the way for a Conservative Member in her wake.

Lorely Burt: I am sorry but I do not understand the last part of the hon. Lady’s remarks.

Miss McIntosh: We are the low tax party, which does not like further burdens on the taxpayer. Has the hon. Lady estimated the extra cost burden on the taxpayer that a referendum would mean? Would it amount to an increase in the council tax in Solihull?

Lorely Burt: The hon. Lady portrays her party as the low tax party. Who will the tax cuts benefit most—wealthier people or those who are less wealthy? The Secretary of State would cover the costs of the referendum. There are social costs as well as financial ones. When one loses something of immense personal and community value, it is difficult to quantify the cost, and democracy must be used to save it.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I, too congratulate the hon. Lady. In my 14 years as a Member of Parliament, I have had six private
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Members’ Bills considered, and I got one on to the statute book—not a good record of achievement in legislation.

I have some sympathy with the hon. Lady’s desire to hold a referendum to ascertain local views, especially on issues such as that we are considering, because we appreciate that, once land is lost, it is lost for ever. However, has she considered conducting her own local survey, at no cost to the taxpayer, which would still deliver the verdict of the local people?

Lorely Burt: I am grateful for that intervention, because it enables me to say that I have done exactly as the hon. Gentleman suggests. We found in a local survey in Shirley that 84 per cent. of people were against building on parkland. However, those results, which were presented for the edification of the local Conservative council, have been ignored. A joint body, in which the council has entered a business arrangement with the developers, has conducted consultation that purports that the majority of people are in favour of the development. A consultation is only as good as the objectivity of those who conduct it.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Lady is generous in giving way and I have some sympathy with the Bill. She said that the Secretary of State would cover the referendum costs, but the Bill does not provide for that. Clause 7 refers to Parliament meeting the Minister’s costs. Where does the Bill suggest that the Secretary of State will meet the costs? What will the Bill cost the public purse? The House is in danger of buying a pig in a poke, without knowing the amount of expenditure to which we would commit the Government.

Lorely Burt: I am trying to express the way forward. People who are much cleverer than me will be required to implement the measure.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on promoting the Bill and I am sure that many of us are sympathetic to her aims and objectives. Clause 9, which is entitled “Interpretation”, lists the various forms of local authority that the Bill covers. Let us consider Northamptonshire. If the county council owned some parkland in Northampton and proposed to sell it off, would a referendum be county wide or restricted to the people of Northampton?

Lorely Burt: I am grateful for that thoughtful intervention. Any referendum would have to be proportionate to the effect on the local community. If everyone in the district stood to enjoy the amenity, the referendum should be county wide. However, in the case of a smaller piece of land, which was specifically enjoyed by a smaller local community, it would be appropriate for the people of that community to have the say because they would be affected.

Miss McIntosh: I do not wish to test the hon. Lady’s patience, but it is customary when preparing such Bills to conduct a legislative and financial impact assessment. Has she had the opportunity to do that or is she relying on clause 7 so that the Government would sort that out on her behalf should the Bill be enacted?

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Lorely Burt: I wonder how many of the Bills that have been tabled for consideration today contain such an assessment. The hon. Lady puts her hand up, which suggests that the Bill that she is promoting does so, and I congratulate her on that.

Miss McIntosh: I hope that it does.

Lorely Burt: I hope that I shall have the opportunity to ask the hon. Lady the same question as she asked me, but I fear that we may not reach her Bill today.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I, too, have an awful lot of sympathy with the hon. Lady’s Bill. On referendums, however, her party, like ours, has always argued in favour of giving more responsibility for planning matters to local authorities. Surely referendums take responsibility away from the local authorities. Is not a democratically elected council the right body to make the decisions? She mentioned the example of the supermarket in her constituency. I presume that the supermarket concerned has carried out its own surveys and research and found out that an awful lot of local people want to shop in a supermarket in that area. Does not that, too, illustrate local opinion on the subject?

Lorely Burt: I, too, believe that such decisions should be taken as close as possible to the people who are affected by them. When I am permitted to make some progress with my speech, hon. Members will see that we are seeking to give local people more say. There would be a referendum if local people were not receiving the service that they wanted from their democratically elected representatives. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the ballot box is the final arbiter, but when something as precious as parkland is being sold off, we must take subsidiarity one step lower and ask the people themselves.

Mr. Evans: I have great sympathy with the hon. Lady’s Bill. I would like to see more local referendums and, indeed, national referendums. I am looking forward to the national referendums on the euro and the European constitution. Would she consider, however, putting into the Bill in Committee a threshold, so that at least a certain percentage of the people would be required to turn out to vote? The hon. Lady will know that some referendums have had derisory turnouts, and that action has been taken as a result of only very small numbers of people voting.

Lorely Burt: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. That is something on which those advising us in Committee will be asked to bring their wisdom to bear. I am grateful for that helpful intervention.

My constituents in Shirley have no redress. The council, in partnership with the developers, has approved their own planning application and the sale of the land. The matter was referred to the Secretary of State, who made the fastest decision that I have ever seen to approve the application, with no public inquiry. I have described the local situation in Solihull, but hon. Members on both sides of the House will probably have similar tales to relate. Only this week, my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) has asked the Secretary of State for a public inquiry into the loss of half of View Lane park to
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development, the application for which was approved by Derwentside district council. I hope that he has more luck than I have had.

Before I leave the first part of the Bill, I want to say a few words about trees. I feel very much the same about trees as I feel about green spaces. Their lifespan is longer than ours and we should be their custodians and, wherever possible, allow them to survive unmolested—particularly when they have already been around for several generations. Right by where the superstore that I have described is due to be built, there is an almost unique example of an oak circle. An ancient 350-year-old oak is surrounded by a circle of oaks, saplings that it has produced which have grown up.

Trees can, supposedly, be protected by tree preservation orders. There is, however, an ironic story about our oak circle. I wrote to the council about the ancient oak and two other venerable trees in Shirley park, requesting that tree preservation orders be placed on them. The reply said that there was no need to have tree preservation orders for trees on council land because the council was a model custodian and would protect them. If ripping them up and putting a superstore in their place is an example of protection, I would not like to see what happened to something that the council did not want to protect.

Trees are under threat from all quarters. Another example is where developers want to develop a piece of land with mature trees on it, and, knowing that the presence of the trees could constitute a ground for objection, fell them before submitting their application. We need a general duty of care on trees over and above the tiny proportion that are covered by tree preservation orders.

Mr. Evans: As the hon. Lady will know, everyone in the Conservative party feels very deeply about trees. We have even made one the symbol of our party, so we are very concerned about the felling of any trees. I decry the felling of a 350-year-old oak, which simply cannot be replaced. Has the hon. Lady spoken to the developer about the replacement of that tree with many more trees, to ensure that the damage will at least partly be rectified?

Lorely Burt: The oak tree had just been announced as the symbol of the Conservative party when the sale of the parkland in Shirley was approved. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could speak to some of his Conservative colleagues in Solihull about that, because their first act, after the announcement of that new symbol, was to destroy a 350-year-old oak tree.

Mr. Evans: Has the hon. Lady spoken to the developer?

Lorely Burt: Yes, and there is a plan to make some improvements to the rest of Shirley park. I am not sure whether trees will be planted, but there will certainly be park improvements, which we are all looking forward to seeing. The hon. Gentleman has made a valid point, however.

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