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Clause 6 is brief and requires the Secretary of State to issue guidance to local planning authorities to
include appropriate protection for large or mature trees within planning guidance legislation.
The second part of my Bill is similar to the ten-minute Bill of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), which covers the practice that has become known as garden grabbing. I am delighted to support his Bill, which was introduced almost a year after mine. I am not aware that either he or any of his Conservative colleagues have supported mine to date, although the supportive comments from hon. Members on the Conservative Benches today would tend to contradict that, and I am grateful to them for their support.
Clause 3 looks at the planning guidelines that designate back gardens as brownfield sites. If it has not become apparent already, I must tell the House that I am no planning expert. To my simple mind, however, a garden is usually green, not brown. The intention of the planning guidelines is to ensure that brownfield sites are developed first. That is highly commendable, but the unintended consequences of designating gardens as brownfield sites can be seen all over Solihull, and in many other places. Developers see a relatively easy and cheap opportunity in an area where house values are high. They knock down a lovely old house with a big garden and build a block of flatsoops, sorry, I mean luxury apartmentsin its stead.
Some people have accused me of nimbyism, because I am suggesting that building dense developments literally in someones back yard is not desirable. They could be right. After all, we need affordable homes, and we need lots of them. However, these so-called luxury apartments are not affordable homes. They are expensive, because developers want to maximise profits, and our council, at least, is failing to reach the affordable homes targets set by the Government.
Mr. Andrew Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): The hon. Lady is speaking as though local authorities had no planning powers. I thought that it was Liberal Democrat policy to leave such matters in local hands. Any proposal of the kind that she has described could easily be turned down by a local planning authority.
Lorely Burt: I will develop that point at some length in due course. The problem is that, although a local authority might wish to turn down a planning application, it can subsequently be overturned on appeal to the Secretary of State.
Lorely Burt: May I finish answering the hon. Gentlemans first question? Often, when there is an appeal against a decision, if the application does not conform with strict Government guidelines, the local authority has to pay not only significant court costs of its own, but the developers court costs, too.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, and I apologise for interrupting. She speaks as though there were no established planning process in this country. If an application is turned down and there
is an appeal by the developeralthough, in the example that the hon. Lady gave, it is more likely that it would be the householder who was appealing, as they would presumably support the developmentthe case would come before the planning inspectorate. Only exceptional cases would be considered by the Secretary of State. Cases of the type that she mentions would never come before the Secretary of State. With all due respect, she wants to overturn a tried and trusted, independent system for the sake of a bit of politicking.
Lorely Burt: I am surprised by the hon. Gentlemans comments. I accept that there are planning guidelines, and if he allows me to make a little progress, I will explain in more detail how I propose to address the problems that he outlines.
I do not blame developers, who are in business to maximise profits. Dealing with developers is a bit like offering a child the choice between chocolate and cabbagethey may know that the cabbage is, in theory, good for them, but they will choose the chocolate every time. It is our responsibility in the House to ensure that the cabbage is eaten. We need good, affordable homes on the sites of redundant, obsolete buildings, and on ground that is currently polluted. Developers are entitled to some chocolate, but they must eat their cabbage first.
There is some hope in draft planning policy statement 3. I shall read an extract for the information of hon. Members, and I hope that it will answer the questions asked by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter):
Although residential gardens are defined as brownfield land, this does not necessarily mean that they are suitable for development. However, in determining the policy approach, local planning authorities will need to have regard to the positive contribution that intensification can make, for example, in terms of minimising the pressure on greenfield sites.
The way in which planning applications are dealt with bears scrutiny, and the Bill proposes two changes. What really upsets many local people is the fact that they cannot appeal against a planning decision made by their councilonly the council or the developers can appeal. Clause 4 therefore gives local individuals and bodies certain rights to appeal. Clause 5 deals with situations in which local communities have been worn down by repeated planning applications. In one street in Solihull, local residents had to fight 21 separate planning applications, which put great emotional strain on the community for years. I am glad that section 70 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 gives local authorities the power to decline to determine an application for up to two years, in the case of serial applicants. Clause 5 of my Bill extends that period to three years, both to deter serial applicants even more, and to give local communities a rest from planning pests.
The Bill may not be the tidiest measure put before the House, but I hope that, when voting, Members will recognise the genuine problems that it addresses. If the
Bill is voted down, I hope that the Government will see fit to incorporate its contents in future legislation of their own. Parks, trees and gardens are a vital green lung in our communities. As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said, the sad fact is that when parkland is gone, it is gone for ever. For Shirley park and Tudor Grange park in Solihull, it is probably too latethe bulldozers are poised to move in. However, we have some parkland left, and parks, trees and gardens across the country desperately need and deserve the stronger protection that the Bill would give them. I therefore respectfully request hon. Members on both sides of the House to support the Bill.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I have enormous sympathy with the thrust of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), but as I tried to make clear in my intervention, her problem is that Solihull has a Conservative council. I have every sympathy, because I have to deal with a Conservative county council in my constituency. She was right to say, in her response, that different planning authorities put different values on the assets in their custody. Such values are not simply monetarythere is also the value to the community, based on the history and culture of, and the environment around, the assets of which they are custodians.
Having said that, I think that the hon. Lady approaches the problem in the wrong way. She has tried to be absolutist in her drafting of the Bill but, in some circumstances, that is counter-productive to good governance. I shall speak about trees in detail, because I have some knowledge of the subject, having planted many trees myself. A few weeks ago, I cut down a tree that had been a problem for a long time. I did so because it was in a dangerous state and because, after considering the cost-benefit of the tree to the environment, I decided that its contribution was not a positive one. It was a scruffy sycamore, and sycamores grow like weeds on my land.
We must be careful not to generalise. When considering the conservation and preservation of trees, we should bear in mind the fact that although the age of the tree matters, some species are more worthy of protection than others. Some trees grow like weeds, but others take a long time to grow. As part of the Mersey Forest project, various species of birch are being planted as crops, and they grow extremely fast. There is no logic in making such species subject to the Bill. However, the plight of the 350-year-old oak that the hon. Lady discussed is an example of desecration at its worst. It is absolutely disgraceful that people should have contemplated cutting it down, and I have every sympathy with her on that point.
The Bill as drafted is fundamentally flawed. I shall try to be helpful in my observations because if, perchance, it proceeded to Committee, and I served on that CommitteeI accept that that is not a matter for meI would certainly table amendments to address some important points. However, I would ensure that I did so in as deregulatory a manner as possible. Wearing my other hatI am Chairman of the Regulatory Reform CommitteeI see some absurdities that are based on well meaning but ill thought out regulations.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): I share the hon. Gentlemans concerns about the nature of the Bill, which is attempting to achieve so much. Does he believe that it is amendable or should large parts of it be cut out? Would it be better to focus on one aspiration, rather than try to cover so many bases?
Andrew Miller: That is a good point, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman shares my concern about the disgraceful behaviour of Solihull council. To answer his other point, any Bill can be amended to achieve a desirable result. For example, the Companies Bill, which we dealt with over the past three days, had rather a lot of amendments, some of which were criticised by the Conservative party, but the House supported its spirit and general meaning. That is why many of our colleagues who were anxious to catch trains yesterday evening were able to do so.
My answer is that it is possible to amend the Bill to address the problems, although some of that would have to be done through wise intervention by the Government on issues of definition, becauseI emphasise this pointthe Bill uses the word repeated. Repeated planning applications must have a definition. The hon. Member for Solihull has made provision for regulations to be introduced, and presumably they would address that problem of definition. Had our dear old Friday friend, the late Eric Forth, been with us today, he would have stamped on me straight away for making that observation. He would have argued that that would be another regulation
On the sale of parkland by local authorities, I have general and specific concerns about clause 1(1). This is an absolutist Bill and it does not cover, for example, parkland owned by hospital trusts. Perhaps it should. At my local hospital, the Countess of Chester, which is not in my constituency, there has been a long-running battle over whether some land ought to be sold off. It is mature land that would fit the description provided by the hon. Member for Solihull.
I would be in favour of that land being developed because of the acute shortage of development land in and around the city of Chester. However, there is, by any definition, ample green space in that area, as looking over the city walls means looking over the beautiful countryside of north Wales. There is no acute shortage of green spacefar from itand plenty of green spaces in the city are protected under different statutes. The land belonging to the hospital would be covered by the spirit of the Bill, if not its definition, as it refers to local authorities, not hospital trusts, although it would be difficult to argue that local authorities should be included but other public sector landowners should not.
For example, the Ministry of Defence is a substantial owner of land that fits the Bills description. If we are
to introduce such a Bill, we ought to incorporate all other substantial public landowners that remain, nevertheless, custodians of important wildlife habitats and amenity land for the public.
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes an important point, as many public bodies have a lot of redundant land. To take an example from my area, we have not only an MOD sitewhich I may have the opportunity to refer to later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I catch your eyebut a lot of NHS land that is now redundant in relation to that purpose. Do my hon. Friends remarks apply equally to such land?
Andrew Miller: I agree with my hon. Friend, although I thought about taking issue when he used the word redundant. However, he then referred to land that is redundant for that purpose. There is an argument, which I shall come to in a moment, about the circumstances in which it may be appropriate for a local authority or a public landowner to change the use of land. I am slightly concerned that the Bill might be too prescriptive to meet the principal point made by the hon. Member for Solihull about dealing with rogue landowners such as Solihull council.
Mr. Evans: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about NHS land, and we should look to widen the Bills scope to cover all sorts of parkland in public use. We should also cover other land. There were three mental institutions in my constituency when I was elected in 1992, two of which are no longer used for that purpose. What provision should be included to prevent a health authority from selling off land that falls outside the Bills scope?
Andrew Miller: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I am not the greatest procedural expert in this place and I am not sure whether the Bills scope may be expanded sufficiently in that regard due to the definition that has been used in its long title. However, to take his example of old mental health institutions, if it were possible to do that, or if other legislation were introduced, there would have to be flexibility in relation to their use for other purposes.
For example, there is a rather beautiful building at the Countess of Chester site that, appropriately, is called the 1829 buildingit is a mental institution of 1829. Clearly, it is not used as a mental health hospital any longer; it is an administrative centre. However, if someone were to make a planning application to incorporate the land and convert the building to flats, I would find it difficult to argue against the logic of it.
Mr. Evans: Many old mental institutions were asylums, and they had a lot of trees and open green spaces. Developing existing buildings is one thing, but building on the open green spaces, or even felling trees, is completely different from that. One of my local authorities is considering that issue, and we need protection for those areas too.
Again, I shall be slightly careful because the Bill does not have tight definitions, but I am assuming that the sale of parkland incorporates the sale of property that falls within the curtilage of the parkland. It is a fair point. The old chapel that would
often have existed on land belonging to a mental institution would be covered by the Bill. That is perhaps wrong because it would make sense for that building to be utilised in a modern setting. Definitional problems need to be addressed.
That applies equally to parks that are clearly covered by the long title. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are welcome to visit my constituency office, as my hon. Friend the Minister has done. It is a converted stable in a park setting, and the office is rather beautiful. I should put it on the record that it is one of the best bits of value for money that any hon. Member has negotiated. That information is, of course, in the public domain these days.
The buildings in the parkland include an old family house that once belonged to the Grace family who donated it to Ellesmere Port and Neston borough council, which in those days was called Ellesmere Port urban district council. It was an amazingly generous gift. The parkland contains the old house, the stables and ancillary buildings. The buildings are used for public purposes. The house is used by the Action Transport Theatre Company, which may well have presented plays to school children in other constituencies because it has gone as far afield as South Africa. Some of the older buildings are used by a community gardening project, and my office is shared with Sure Start. Had the local authority not been able to find good community use for those buildings, it would have been a criminal shame to see them standing unused. An argument could be made for selling some of those where appropriate. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Solihull that that could be left to the whim of the local authority, but I am sure all hon. Members would agree that where appropriate is not as black and white as she suggested.
James Duddridge: The hon. Gentleman mentions land that has been donated to a local authority by a charitable benefactor. Many pieces of land have been donated to Southend local authority, and conditions are often attached to the use of such land. Is he as worried as I am that some of the conditions in the Bill would cut across the original intentions of those benefactors on the usage of that land?
Andrew Miller: I am not sure about that. I have not considered that angle, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are often covenants on gifts to local authorities and communities, and those need to be considered when the Bill is examined further.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his extremely valid points. To develop the discussion point about benefactors, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) is concerned that the Bills restrictions would cut across conditions set out in covenants. That is important and we would need to examine it carefully. The first park I mentioned, Tudor Grange, was donated by the Bird family, famous for the wonderful custard that we still enjoy today. The problem in Solihull is that the land was donated for community recreational and educational purposes. The fact that land might be sold off to build houses when the original intention of the benefactors was for it to be used for community
recreation and education shows how important it is to ensure that there are watertight restrictions in covenants and that when the experts get to grips with the Bill, as I hope they eventually will, we do something that accommodates his concerns.
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